Procrastination: A Clue to An Unsettled Nervous System
Ever felt the grip of procrastination paralyzing your progress? You’re not alone, and there’s more to this common challenge than meets the eye.
Discover how procrastination can be your nervous system’s way of communicating with you.
We live in a world where taking action and moving towards our dreams and desires is highly valued, and procrastination, well it often gets a bad wrap. It’s the thing that stops us, try as we might we just can’t seem to move forward, yet at the same time we feel we must.
But what if procrastination wasn’t so bad? What if it was merely a message from your nervous system asking you to fill in the gaps before leaping into action?
This article delves into:
- What is procrastination and what can cause it
- How stress impacts procrastination
- Recognising procrastination in fight, flight, freeze and fawn states
- Understanding procrastination without self-judgement
- Reflection questions to get to the bottom of your procrastination
What is procrastination?
The American Psychological Association defines procrastination as “the voluntary delay of an intended and necessary task, despite expecting to be worse off for the delay.”
That feeling of a looming deadline or time running out… and yet a part of you decides to engage in anything but the necessary task. Whether it be life, work, study, personal projects, daily chores and responsibilities… procrastination often arrives with a sense of unease, guilt and anxiety.
What causes procrastination?
The cause of procrastination can be a variety of factors including:
- Lack of motivation: when it doesn’t align with your values, goals or interests
- Fear of failure: fear of not meeting your own or others expectations
- Perfectionism: paralysed by the strive for perfectionism
- Task difficulty: the task may be complex, challenging and overall overwhelming or perhaps you doubt your ability/skills to successfully complete it
- Poor time management: underestimating the time required and fail to prioritise
- Task aversion: the task is deemed boring or unpleasant thus ignoring it for as long as possible
- Lack of self-discipline: difficulty in self-regulation and self-control to meet the task at hand and perhaps finding yourself distracted
- Lack of safety or resources within: difficulty finding a sense of safety within and a need for co-regulation through another or nature
- Lack of capacity: difficulty with feeling the energy to carry out the task or having the capacity to do so
- Indecisiveness: difficulty committing or making decisions in order to complete the task.
It’s important to get to know yourself and if procrastination is a regular occurrence for you, what factor/s are creating obstacles for you? And are you willing to commit to work through it?
How stress impacts procrastination
Your nervous system is always watching and reacting to your surroundings, while also maintaining bodily functions in accordance to the state you are in.
When you feel safe and connected in life, you are in the ventral vagal state. When you feel threatened or stressed, your body will generally move into the sympathetic response (fight or flight) or parasympathetic response (freeze, faint or fawn).
These states can affect your productivity in both positive and negative ways – you can adapt and adjust to the environment adequately or not. If stress becomes overwhelming your nervous system can shift towards avoidance behaviours like procrastination as a way to cope.
Understanding how stress impacts you and plays out in your thinking and behaviour is a crucial step in recognising and working through procrastination tendencies.
The Fight Response
When faced with a challenge or stressor, the sympathetic nervous system is activated – increasing alertness and energy to take the challenge head-on.
Healthy ‘fight’ behaviours are where you channel motivation and energy into:
- Being a proactive problem solver
- Confronting issues
- Taking charge
- Setting goals
- Working step-by-step to overcome obstacles
However, if you stay in fight mode for a long period of time it can also lead to exhaustion and burnout.
How does the fight response play out in procrastination?
The fight response when procrastinating can look like:
- Lots of start energy building up in the body – jaw clenching, fist making, fidgeting
- Lots of energy but no clear direction to go
- All talk and no action
- Racing thoughts
- Anger or aggression as to why it’s not done yet or why you need to do it, etc
- Initial drive beginning to fade
- Feeling like an imposter
Overall the fight response can leave you feeling defeated, tense, angry and unsatisfied.
The Flight Response
The flight response also activates the sympathetic nervous system – instead of preparing to take the challenge head-on, the body prepares to flee from the threat.
Healthy ‘flight’ behaviours are where you can channel this energy into personal growth:
- Knowing when to leave or have breaks
- Letting go of things that are unhelpful or not required
- Putting other tasks to the side so you can focus on one thing at a time
- Reminding yourself you can do hard things
- Acknowledging fears and staying to task anyway
You can also use this energy to explore new opportunities and challenges by taking small steps in a mindful way.
However, similar to fight mode, being in this state for too long can lead to chronic health issues, particularly with memory, concentration, appetite and emotional regulation.
How does the flight response play out in procrastination?
The flight response when procrastinating can look like:
- Avoiding or moving away from the task (physically or mentally)
- A fear of being seen – taking breaks, disappearing or hiding away
- Overthinking – your mind fleeing from the task at hand
- Over-researching or excessive learning/reading
- Half-starting things
- Lacking commitment and follow-through
Overall the flight response can leave you feeling anxious, busy, restless and in a flurry of emotions, especially as deadlines loom in closer.
Quick defrag options when in fight or flight
If you are in fight or flight the following techniques can help quickly move the excess energy so you can keep going with the task.
- Jumping, dancing
- Pushing or pulling movements (using wall, desk, kinesthetic toys, playdo, etc)
- Tapping (Emotional Freedom Technique)
- Lying on the ground
- Extended eye contact with someone you trust
- Hum, chant, sing
These techniques are great to help relieve the symptom of the procrastination but not necessarily resolve the root cause.
The Freeze Response
Where fight and flight (sympathetic nervous system) are the gas pedals of your body, the freeze response (parasympathetic nervous system) is the brake pedal.
Healthy freeze beahviours are where you can channel this energy into slowing down, being present and checking in with yourself. It can look like:
- Mindful pauses before action
- Time to rest and relax
- Time to digest
- Time to check in with yourself
- Time to repattern and relearn
- Time to get clear
- Time to make aligned choices
Overall, freeze states can give you a moment or two to take a breath and reflect before choosing the next best step – instead of reacting in the moment and wishing you chose differently.
How does the freeze response play out in procrastination?
In general, the freeze response when procrastinating can look like:
- Limited energy
- Only doing what is required to survive
- Little clarity on what you are doing and what you want
- Confusion, forgetfulness, attention issues
- Escaping reality through screens, social media, etc
There are two types of freeze energy – hyper-freeze (the part that wants to fight and flee at the same time but can’t do either) and hypo-freeze (the part that slows or shuts down).
The hyper-freeze response when procrastinating can look like:
- Trying to do everything at once
- Feeling frantic or acting franticly
- Living somewhere between flight and fight
- Chasing time / feeling like you don’t have time for it
The hypo-freeze response when procrastinating can look like:
- Feeling stuck
- Needing to talk it over and over
- Being glued to a screen
- Being active for others but not self
- Slowing or shutting down
- Collapsing physically, mentally or emotionally
Overall getting stuck in freeze mode can leave you feeling exhausted, sluggish and fatigued.
Quick defrag options when in freeze
If you have frozen, try techniques such as:
- Letting your eyes wander around a room
- Gentle stretching
- Breathing exercises
- Grounding exercises
- Feeling your feelings (in a safe way/space) – get help if you need to
- Resource yourself if past trauma (big and little) keeps popping up until you are in a safe space and have capacity to process it.
Again, these techniques are great to help relieve the symptom of the procrastination at the time but not necessarily resolve the root cause.
The Fawn Response
The fawn response seeks safety by merging with wishes, needs and demands of others – it relies on people-pleasing in order to appease the threat and avoid conflict. It is often linked with trauma but can also be influenced by other factors including gender, sexuality, culture and race.
The fawn response in general looks like:
- Giving the other power of you
- Saying what you think the other needs to hear
- Heavily relying on someone to give you directions
- Prioritizing others over yourself
- Over-apologising or accepting blame for something you didn’t do
- Defending others hurtful or toxic behavior
There is no healthy fawn response. However, when you acknowledge and recognise fawning behaviour you can choose to build a supportive network that can help identify, guide and develop:
- your identity and sense of self
- your strengths, needs and feelings
- boundaries and effective communication skills.
How does the fawn response play out in procrastination?
The fawn response when procrastinating can look like:
- Prioritising others needs and demands above the task
- Avoiding conflict or tough conversations to get the job finished
- Feeling responsible for everyone’s emotions and thus too overwhelmed by potential outcomes of task
- Feeling unequipped for the task and that someone else is better suited
- Waitng for someone to talk you through each step because you think they have all the answers (when you are actually well-equipped for the task)
The fawn response can leave you feeling very disempowered, timid, lonely and isolated. Moving from this space will require you to believe in your own power.
Quick defrag options when in fawn
If you are in fawn, try techniques such as:
- Positive self talk – what would you say to a friend in the same situation
- Invoke your inner parent or wise self to parent the fawn-like part of you
- Validate your experience and feelings
- Find a safe person to talk to
- Self check in questions such as
- Am I saying/doing this to please another at my own expense?
- Do my actions align with my values?
- Am I being authentic or taking action for someone elses benefit?
As with fight, flight and freeze, these techniques are great to help relieve the symptom of the procrastination at the time but not necessarily resolve the root cause.
Understanding procrastination without self-judgement
Let’s be honest—procrastination often comes hand in hand with self-judgement. But what if you could shift your mindset and approach procrastination with compassion and curiosity instead?
Here are the cues to reframe your relationship with procrastination and replace self-critique with self-understanding:
- Identify the trigger
- Identify the state of your nervous system
- Identify your associated emotions
- Identify any sensations in your body
- Identify proceeding behaviours, habits and thoughts
Next seek to understand the cause. Once you know the cause, it becomes easier to understand your underlying need and the action required to move forward.
Example 1: Replying to an abrupt email
Trigger: Sitting at desk and opening an abrupt email
Nervous System: Freeze
Emotion: Shocked, uneasy
Sensation: Numb, heart drops
Behaviour: Neck stiffens, breathing restricts, stare at blank screen, get lost in thoughts, ruminate on thoughts, turn attention to phone, change tasks only to come back five minutes later and repeat
Thoughts: This is too much, I don’t know what to do, I can’t do anything right, everything is terrible, I should have done this or that differently.
In this case, if you know the way forward it may just be that co-regulation is needed. For example having a trusted friend, mentor, colleague or partner sit with you (or be on the phone) while you reflect and reply to the email.
Example 2: Writing a blog
Trigger: Sitting at desk and staring at blog template
Nervous System: Flight
Emotion: Restless, fidgety, confused
Sensation: Jittery, shallow breathing
Behaviour: Opening a number of documents, half starting and then swapping tasks, moving away from desk and coming back, overthinking or over-researching each paragraph or section, making excuses as to why it’s not important
Thoughts: I don’t have time for this, it’s not really important, it doesn’t really matter, I dont know enough, does anyone really care
In this case, you may need to:
- Re-align with your ‘why’ and motivation for the blog
- Move and ground that fidgety energy – breathing, walking, exercise
- Recognise if you have the skills and ability to write the blog or if it’s just your thinking that tells you that you don’t – so upskill or reaffirm your ability
- Decide if the task is worth your time or whether it is better to delegate
- Decide if you have the mental capacity to focus and write or whether you need something before getting into the task – eg. rest, downtime, play
- Set up your environment and remove distractions (eg. leave phone in kitchen for 30 minutes)
- Understand your creative rhythms and when/how they best turn on
Reflection questions to get to the cause of the procrastination
Consider the following questions to help you reflect on the cause of your procrastination:
Does the task align with my values?
- If yes, you ‘should’ have enough intrinsic motivation to complete the task – do you need to adjust the way you see this task?
- If no, you may require extrinsic motivation to complete the task – what would that need to look like?
Does the task align with my head and heart?
- If not, how can they both get on board?
- Or is it something that you actually want to do? If not, what needs to happen to put a pause or stop to the task (aka saying no)
Do I have the ability to complete the task?
- If not, what do you need to move forward?
- If not, who do you know that is already doing something similar? What can you learn from them?
Do I have time to complete the task?
- If not, what needs to change or be reprioritised?
Do I have the energy/capacity to complete the task?
- If not, what do you need to fill your tank (downtime, sleep, exercise, food, play, connection, mindfulness, etc)
- Or what do you need to complete in order to create capacity?
Am I afraid of failing or getting it wrong?
- If yes, what do you need to reassure yourself along the way?
Am I regulated in my nervous system and feel safe to move forward?
- If not, where do you feel dysregulated? Is it the task or relationships, world, money, etc
- Or what part feels dysregulated? How can you meet this part and hear its needs? How can you strengthen that part?
- Or what part of you is unavailable but needed? How can you meet this part and create safety and connection so it can be available?
Overall, the saying generally goes if you want something you will do it. However it doesn’t always activate that ‘go energy’ and in fact it sounds more judgemental and critical then helpful.
So perhaps the better question is “What do you need in order to feel safe enough to take action?” Or “How can you create a sense of harmony, safety and connection so that you can take a step forward?”.
Remember when procrastination pops up take a moment to check in on your capacity, needs, alignment with life vision, then discharge that excess energy and be your own inner parent – not the critical one but the nurturing one.
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