Overeating and Procrastination–What’s the Connection?

We all procrastinate to some extent. There are only so many hours in the day and some tasks are just plain more onerous than others. Sometimes we procrastinate because we feel overwhelmed by everything we need to get done and we’re having trouble getting started.  Other times, we feel unmotivated or tired and can’t get going. But no matter what the reason, if we want to successfully manage our lives, we must get a handle on our procrastination.

Procrastination becomes a problem when it’s chronic and/or all-pervasive. This means it applies to many areas of your life–you don’t pay bills on time, you file your taxes late, you shop for gifts last minute, you avoid making important decisions and phone calls and you can’t clear out your clutter. Research by leading experts on the subject shows that twenty percent of people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators and that for these folks, procrastination is a maladaptive lifestyle.

So what does all this have to do with overeating? Because chronic procrastinators have an underlying avoidant coping style, they actively look for distractions and eating is a very pleasurable distraction.  Add to this a generalized problem with self-regulation (managing emotions, thoughts and behaviors, including impulses) and  they tend to consume more food than their bodies need.  And certain foods can be very calming and soothing to the anxious or depressed procrastinator. 

The truth is, procrastination is learned–no one is born a procrastinator, although certain temperaments ( depressive/anxious, obsessive-compulsive, perfectionistic) and those with attention deficits  seem more prone to put off tasks than others.  Procrastination is basically a habit or deeply ingrained pattern of behavior.  This means that while it is unlikely that you will break it overnight, it is possible to break the habit by consistently practicing “anti-procrastination” strategies.

Before I share with you some strategies for doing just that, let’s take a look at how you might have developed this habit and avoidant coping style early in life.

Researchers have found that procrastination is one response to an authoritarian parenting style.   When you are raised by a controlling parent, you often don’t develop the ability to name and regulate, or manage, your emotions, identify your needs, internalize and set your own intentions, prioritize tasks, make difficult decisions and initiate appropriate action.   Dr. Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done suggests that “procrastination is not waiting, and it is more than delaying.”  “It is a decision to not act.”   Procrastinators often find themselves overwhelmed by all the steps involved in even the most simple tasks and therefore fail to take any action.   Procrastination may also be a form of rebellion against a controlling parent.

Procrastination can also be learned by copying the behavior of an undisciplined, indulgent parent.  This type of parenting style (or lack thereof) can thwart the development of much needed time management and decision making skills.  If a parent cannot regulate his or her emotions, identify needs, set priorities and take appropriate action, he/she cannot teach the child these skills.

The good news is that it’s never too late to change your behavior and say goodbye to procrastination and any associated overeating.  The following anti-procrastination strategies are a good first step:

Strategy #1:  Acknowledge that you are procrastinating.  The first step in changing any deeply ingrained behavior pattern is awareness.  STOP in the moment and just admit that you are stalling on taking care of more important tasks.

Strategy #2: Get in the habit of grabbing a pad of paper (rather than food) to get clear on why  you are procrastinating.   Use your urge to go get something to eat, surf the net, or turn the television on as your cue that you are procrastinating. This doesn’t mean you’re necessarily ready to embark on the task, but it is a step in moving towards action.   You may be procrastinating because:

  • you feel overwhelmed by the task
  • the task is unpleasant
  • you’re perfectionistic
  • you’re physically and/or emotionally drained and/or
  • your decision making skills are undeveloped.

Strategy #3: Address the underlying issue and take action:

If you feel overwhelmed by the task, this may be because:

  • you are disorganized–you’ll need to break down the task into manageable “baby steps.”  Organized people prioritize their tasks with to-do lists and schedules
  • you aren’t sure if you have the skills or resources to complete the task, in which case, you’ll still need to break the task into baby steps and you may have to educate yourself by doing some research and then perhaps delegate if need be.  When I found out that I had to write a non-fiction book proposal to submit my book to publishers, I went to the library and looked at books on writing proposals.  These authors broke this very overwhelming task down into more manageable steps for me.  One of my clients felt overwhelmed by the idea of remodeling her downstairs bathroom.  She decided to hire an interior designer to help her visualize and manage the project.
  • you have a fear of failure or success that is stalling action–perhaps you’re afraid that you’ll do a bad job and feel ashamed or dissatisfied.  Keep in mind that we learn from our mistakes just as much as our successes.  Maybe you’re afraid that if you succeed, you’ll have more responsibility or work piled on.  If this is the case, remind yourself that you can regulate your workload, whether you work for yourself or someone else.  It’s important in this step to catch and replace any self-defeating thoughts regarding your abilities that may be inhibiting forward movement.

If you feel the task is unpleasant try

  • using what I call “the ten-minute rule.”   Often, we overestimate the unpleasantness of a task.  Remind yourself that you can do anything for just ten minutes.  I developed this rule over twenty years ago to get myself to exercise, more specifically, to get out the door and go running when I didn’t feel like it.  I told myself that I only had to do it for ten minutes.  If I hated it, I could turn back and be done.  In all those years, I never quit after ten minutes.  I was just starting to get into a rhythm at that point.   I then was able to apply the same rule to many other unpleasant tasks, like cleaning out the refridgerator, scrubbing the toilet and tub, mopping the kitchen floor, checking the car oil–you get the idea.
  • setting up a non-food reward for yourself when you complete the task and
  • using the buddy system and enlist a friend to hold you accountable for the completion of the task.

If you’re perfectionistic remind yourself that many of the tasks you need to get done in a day don’t require perfection.  Strive for “good enough,'” a happy medium between average and great.   Most of the time, completing a task imperfectly is better than delaying it indefinitely.  Tell yourself “I know this isn’t perfect, but it’s good enough for today and I’m okay with that.”  Learning to accept “good enough” in many areas will allow you to accept your own imperfections as well as those of others.  And to accept the fact that there isn’t always time, in a busy life, to strive for perfection.

If you’re physically and/or emotionally drained, you’ll need to take some time to explore the causes of your fatigue.  Perhaps you’ve been pushing too hard and need some quality rejuvenative time.  Maybe you’ve been going through a difficult emotional patch and this isn’t the time to get a lot done.  And it just may be time to see your health care provider if you feel your body may be out-of-balance in some way.

If your decision-making skills are undeveloped you may want to make an investment in yourself and either take a course in decision-making or work with a therapist or coach on developing these skills.  Good decision making involves a number of sub-skills: patience, research, assertion, organization, delegation and asking for support, to name a few.  When we don’t learn a skill early in life, we may not even know we’re missing it.  There’s no need to feel ashamed if you didn’t fully develop these skills in childhood or later years.  You can develop them now– it’s not too late.

If you’re serious about addressing your procrastination (and the overeating that goes with it), there is no moment like the present to get started.  You know that you’re going to feel so much better about yourself when you feel more disciplined and focused.

Which task are you thinking of starting with?

Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to http://overeatingrecovery.com.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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