Issue of the Week: Woman Struggles With Boyfriend's Procrastination
I'm really into being organized...nowhere near OCD-style where everything has to be perfect. But a relatively clean, but lived-in home with low clutter keeps me calm and clear-headed. I'm really pleased and very thankful that my boyfriend does do chores. But somehow, it's seldom the dreaded, really ugly projects we need to tackle. For example, if I point out a large paper pile stack, he'll go do the dishes and lots of other things, tiring himself out before he can get to the paper. If I suggest we tackle the current light messes floating about (which are a quick clean up), he'd rather tackle a big old box in the corner! If I say nothing (and I have tried that) it can take a few weeks before anything major is done. This is odd, because we otherwise communicate really well, and openly. Don't get me wrong—I don't dictate (no one likes to be told what to do) and there are plenty of times we simply ask, 'What do you want to work on?', but sometimes I wonder if guys misunderstand desires as demands?
We have discussed his fears about letting go of old things, and he has made tremendous progress - but I feel like in the time it is taking him to take care of of the old stuff, "new old" stuff is being made. I have offered my help in anyway that is useful, from working by his side to giving him privacy to sort through these big projects. I don't want to put anymore pressure than he probably feels inside already, but I also want to have a home I feel comfortable in. So, is there a way to effectively to point out areas of the home that could use attention?
Dear clear headed,
It appears that what you have found yourself in is the mysterious and elusive world of procrastination. That it is your significant other’s issue and it is affecting your lifestyle in a significant way. You will need to approach the situation diplomatically and with empathy. I do not mean that you should sacrifice your needs and comfort of living in pursuit of this, but you will need some patience and understanding along the way.
To try and help you with this, some understanding from a psychological and emotional perspective should be of some aid.
Procrastination is a phenomena that afflicts most of us to varying degrees. It is a matter of degree that determines whether it seriously impedes normal functioning for the individual.
At it’s root, procrastination is closely related to a coping function for the anxieties one attempts to avoid. There are an array of components (too many to go into here) that can affect procrastination, mostly involving issues of anxiety, self-worth or self-defeating traits, all with reference to either starting or finishing a task, a job, a project or even a decision.
Lacking in conscientiousness seems to be a general characteristic with all or most procrastinators, who tend to be more focused on perfection rather than the importance and appreciation of either their responsibilities or their potential in doing and/ or finishing the job.
Perfection is driven by one’s own fear that their ability, performance and results, will be judged negatively by others, thereby setting off the need for avoidance so to delay this evaluation of themselves.
There are also ‘types’ of procrastinators. As I can’t be sure which category your boyfriend falls into, I will describe them briefly. You will have to ascertain which type reflects your boyfriends behavior, so you will be better equipped to help him and yourself.
The “relaxed type” see the jobs and tasks before them in a negative light, and direct their energy away towards what they feel or sense to be less challenging undertakings. Some tend to view their projects only as a whole, unable to break them down into smaller parts so they would not seem insurmountable. This in a way becomes denial or a cover-up, and the individual makes no attempt to seek help. They also find great difficulty in asking for help, or feel won’t find an understanding source of support. Another characteristic of the “relaxed-type” is the inability to defer gratification, and therefore seeks out more pleasant activities or more enjoyable jobs, while seeming to convey no need to be worried or concerned about completion or even deadlines.
There is the “tense-afraid type” characterized with feelings of being overwhelmed and pressured, not clear on the goals, and unrealistic about the time one needs to get the job done. One may experience feelings of of malaise and lack of focus. This generates the idea that they will need time to relax and unwind, get some sleep and start the next morning. More often than not their rest periods are ineffective and cause even more stress over the deadlines or promises that are now looming closer. Guilt and apprehension sets in, projects are put off or set with new deadlines, and procrastinator falls into a cycle of failure and delay, with continued escalation.
An important note here. Cycles like these often leave the procrastinator with feelings of uncertainty, awkwardness and uncomfortable around those who appear to be goal-oriented and seem to present themselves with confidence and self assurance.
You have mentioned that “he has made progress in letting go of old things.” I’m not quite sure of the reference here, whether you’re referring to old unfinished projects that are no longer viable or of use, or other old issues that reduce his level of functioning. However, I can see, as do you, how this becomes an unending cycle in itself.
As you say you do not tell him what to do. That is wise because that will usually backfire stirring up the individuals own doubts and possibly guilt, one may feel over an ongoing issue.
You say that you communicate well and openly. Then I suggest that rather than “pointing out that stack of paper” that’s been sitting there gathering dust (to him it may feel the equivalent of “being told what to do), try getting your boyfriend to sit down with you at a pre-planned time and day for a good talk about the overall situation.
Present the situation from your point of view, of how this behavior of his affects you. That you can appreciate his own idea of priorities, but more specifically, how these avoided or long delayed tasks cause you to feel anxious and unfocused. Also, that you feel disrespected, ignored and sad because it feels to you that he doesn’t care enough about you to honor your feelings and needs.
You will need to get into a discussion about procrastination, otherwise the situation will continue with him only sporadically accommodating your needs. Ultimately your partner will have to accept that he indeed has an issue with procrastination, and that it is affecting your life, and in turn both of your lives in a negative way.
Hopefully these discussions will prove to provide the calm and clear headedness you strive for, and he some relief by realizing that this behavior he’s been stuck in, affects the life you both want to live.
Tip of the Week: A Quote.
"It is our attitude at the beginning of a difficult task which, more than anything else, will affect It's successful outcome."
If you have a question or an issue, or a suggestion for a Tip of the Week, email it to Richard at firstname.lastname@example.org Or leave your question or issue in the comments box below. Always confidential: Names do not appear in the column.
For information on Richard's approach to psychotherapy, click on: Richard Z. Ross, MA, CGP, LMHC, LP