I have OCD and feel that I put off doing things, particularly work-related stuff. Mostly it’s because I find it difficult doing what needs to be done and so I opt out and do something else instead; or I end up doing nothing at all and then ruminate about what I should I be getting on with?

Deep down, you will likely know what needs to be done; yet, doubts creep in where you question yourself, such as, “Are you sure you want to do that right now?” or “How about leaving things left undone until you can get your head around it all.”

That’s true, but I don’t know if it is procrastination or OCD. Whatever it, it’s making me indecisive. Why is this?

Well, if you can identify that there is a relationship between indecisiveness and procrastination then this can be problem-solved on a rational level where the worry about it can be handled realistically. OCD tends to interfere on an emotional level, so you need to look for factual evidence to support your beliefs, not evidence based on how you feel.

How would I do this?

One tip is to ask yourself in which way you are delaying. For example, if you put something off decisively because you think it’s a good idea to wait, then this would not be procrastinating. This is because you made a decision to plan a time to do the thing you delayed for a good reason. In the meantime you would find yourself continuing to be productive. For example, you might have a document that needs editing and put that to one side; yet, by organising your desk you continue to be productive. Later the scheduled activity would get done because the motivation is there.

However, when you press the pause button soon after planning to do something and then feeling that you should have done whatever it is earlier, yet delayed anyway,  then this is procrastination. In a nutshell, procrastination is putting something off regardless of knowing you’ll be worse off for it. It might even be that you initially felt the impulsive thrill of getting something done yet lost motivation at the last moment.

I guess I’m pressing the pause button. So what next?

The tip in all of this is to make a decision based on the outcome, as in, “What kind of outcome do I want?” If your answer is, “I want a productive outcome” then the solution is to get into the habit of “productive procrastination” (Piers Steel). This means, competing with your projects or things to do, similar to scheduling a later date for editing the document yet tidying the desk in the meantime.

What are the steps for getting into the habit of “productive procrastination”?

First, identify that when you defer through indecision you are postponing doing what needs to be done.  This is time-wasting. What you would do to help yourself out of this spiral is to list a hierarchy of tasks. This concept, taken from John Perry’s (Standford University Philosopher) view, works by writing at the top of your hierarchy the thing you would like to have done but where this is not as pressing or urgent as the ones placed in the middle. So if you have 5 things you need to get done and the two lower down are the most important, you would climb (or step up and down) the ladder, eager to reach the task you want to get done the most, even though realistically it’s the least important one. When you do this, you’re basically encouraging yourself to compete with one task and another, so you might do a play off where you do task 4 first, then task 1, then 3, and so on, but always save task 5 till last. The advantage will be on your side when you follow through with this method.

What if I still find it hard making decisions, then what?

Remember to trust in your natural ability to make good choices, and then make your decisions rationally instead of emotionally.

How else can I trust my decision-making? Sometimes, I put things off because I fear something bad will happen, which to some degree explains pressing the pause button.

Once you act on your decision you will know you’re on the right track when you see it has a productive outcome. This is the rational concept. However, and on the subject of making the wrong choice due to fear of something bad happening, then this has an element of magical thinking. One suggestion in this case is to use the theory A and theory B experiment (Salkovskis & Bass, 1997). This covers worry (theory B) and threat (theory A). Therory A is associated with OCD.

By following theory A you might think:

“The problem for me is that I fear I’ll never get anything done due to my poor decision-making and procrastinating; and as a result something bad will happen to my family and it will be all my fault.”

However, by following theory B you would think:

“The problem for me is that I care deeply for my family and I worry about something bad happening to them due to my episodes of procrastinating.”

Notice how theory A keeps you in an obsessive spiral and has you scrambling for solutions on an emotional level, which doesn’t work, because emotional reasoning is irrational. However, theory B loses the threat element, giving room for rational thought and effective problem-solving.

What about the doubts creeping in?

Basically thoughts do not convert to action therefore no “safety” behaviours are required which might be going over “what if” scenarios and seeking reassurance. On a rational level a productive outcome is what you’re aiming at, and this includes learning to live with the uncertainties in life, which is better than living with doubts and “what ifs” about something that might never happen. Motivational Interviewing can also be helpful for OCD and procrastination problems.

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