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The surprising link between anxiety and procrastination

Sheila Chandra - Thursday, February 01, 2018

You may consider yourself a high functioning creative person – and yet be paralysed by procrastination regularly. Have you considered that it might be anxiety?

Most people imagine that anxiety looks like being afraid to speak to people, or worrying about inconsequential things until they loom large in your mind. Or panic attacks. Anxiety can indeed look like all those things. But it can also show up in otherwise well-functioning artists in more subtle ways. And because those ways are considered ‘part of the terrain’, anxiety can sneak in undetected.

The sneaky way anxiety shows up in the lives of creative people

Most creative people are freelancers. That means we’re used to worrying about where the next job or gig will come from. We’re used to putting the onus on ourselves to ‘make things happen’. And even when we do ‘make things happen’ we’re used to holding ourselves responsible even if industry conditions are making it harder and harder to earn a decent living. So we live with these concerns all the time. We don’t call them ‘anxiety’. We call them being reasonably concerned about our careers.

And to a degree we’re correct. All freelance creative careers involve a certain amount of ongoing risk, which means a certain amount of ongoing concern. But there’s a point where concern spills over into anxiety. The reason we don’t call it ‘anxiety’ is that it’s often not an overreaction to what’s going on in our lives.

These are anxious times for creative people

In these austere times in Europe, and for most of us, there’s less and less money to spend on luxuries and indulgences like art. The 1% are the demographic who are able to spend more than ever on art, and if your clients are from that bracket, you’re probably not feeling the pinch. But most artists don’t draw from the 1% as clients. Most of us rely on middle class people, or even working class teenagers to buy our work. And that audience has less to spend and is, understandably, less willing to spend.

Added to this is the explosion of channels to reach our audiences. I remember (yes back in the dark ages…) when there were only two TV channels. And then three. And then four. No satellite or cable. No social media. No YouTube. And about half a dozen newspapers that covered the arts, plus specialist magazines with fairly large readerships. And fewer radio stations that could reach an audience further than 20 miles away. Getting to our audiences was much simpler. In an age when TV programmes tended to reach far higher proportions of the population, getting to huge swathes of our audiences was simpler too. They were tuning in in droves, because there were few other mediums to get relatively cheap passive entertainment from.

Most creative people are, unsurprisingly, experiencing more classic mental health symptoms than ever before

Artists and creative people are under much more pressure than ever before. The new mental health service for musicians Help Musicians UK was set up partly in response to a 2016 survey of 2000 musicians which found that 71% had experienced panic attacks an 68% had experienced depression.

But even if you’re not, anxiety can show up in your life more insidious ways

A major way that anxiety shows up in creative people’s lives, is procrastination. This is not procrastination at the end of the day when you’re tired, nor because you need a day off. This is the kind of procrastination that happens at the start of the day when you should be fresh and raring to go. It’s not that your creative calling has lost its appeal. And yet you’re stymied. Maybe you feel overwhelmed as to what to do next. Maybe you know what needs doing desperately, but you just can’t make yourself get out of bed or get off social media.

Procrastination can be a cover for anxiety

Of course, what most creative people will do at this point is reproach themselves for not getting on with the work. We’re used to doing that. But this reaction is so automatic, we can forget that what we’re experiencing is not simply ‘laziness’ but an anxiety about the big picture which projects itself onto the smaller things. So, things we know we can do with ease – like chase up a contact, or some research – can suddenly be a task we fear to start. It’s not that the task has got more difficult. It’s that our fear (especially after we’ve experienced a few setbacks) about being able to reach overall success can paralyse us.

What can you do about procrastination caused by career anxiety?

First, be kind to yourself. Those self-critical voices aren’t helping. You aren’t lazy or undeserving. You’re in a difficult situation and you’re scared. If it’s a serious problem and manifesting as panic attacks etc. then seek help with a therapist or mental health organisation. But for those of us who are otherwise okay, here are some more tips to breaking through the blanket of anxiety when it’s suffocating you.

  • Any movement is good. If you can’t get out of bed, try to coax yourself up to get a cup of tea, or have a shower. Physical discomfort helps here. Eventually you’re going to get hungry, thirsty or need the loo. Use that momentum to do one more thing towards getting ready to go.
  • Put on an audio book or talk radio. Someone else’s voice can help drown out the subconscious voices that are reproaching you or causing your anxiety. Give your subconscious mind something else to concentrate on. Amuse and distract it while you go through basic ‘getting ready’ routines. Break its train of thought.
  • Use routines. Routines around getting up and sitting at your desk can be very useful. So if you have a set time to rise, and a grooming and breakfast or mediation or exercise routine you always do, it can help you to get up and get ready to go before you know it. Automatic pilot can be good.
  • Make a list. I often make a ‘to do’ list for the next day in the evening. Being clear about what needs to be achieved as a priority makes it easier not to sit at your desk in a fog in the morning, or waste time worrying about what is important to do. Make a list and follow it. It doesn’t even matter if the list is correct (in terms of priorities). Doing something is better than doing nothing.
  • Start with a few easy tasks. If some tasks on your list are causing anxiety then start with a few easy ones which can be done in minutes. This will give you a sense of achievement that may make it easier to tackle the bigger tasks.
  • Make a start. Try to let your mind concentrate on that big scary task for at least 10 minutes. You might find you’re so focused on it that you’re able to carry on without worrying any further.
  • Acknowledge that you feel scared. Take a minute to make peace with the fact that you’re anxious about everything, and that decisions may feel impossible to make. Then launch in and do a task the best way you can. It will probably be better than you think.
  • Remind yourself to keep plugging away. All of us have felt disheartened or scared by setbacks. But it’s often those who keep plugging away undeterred that succeed. So keep going even if for a while it doesn’t seem to be working. (If it isn’t working in the long term, you need to reappraise your strategy).
  • Remind yourself what you achieved yesterday. Often ‘anxiety procrastination days’ come after productive ones. This is frustrating. After all, if you could only achieve today what you did yesterday, you’d stand a chance of keeping up with the work! But the ‘down’ day you’re having can be a reaction to the strain of a good one. So remind yourself of what you did that was brave, or what you achieved. It can provide a much needed emotional boost.

If you’re experiencing issues with motivation and need help managing your creative momentum, you might benefit from creative career coaching. Email me at sheila@sheilachandra.com for a free 30 minute consultation to find out if I’m the right coach for you…

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