Current self-help hype simultaneously promulgates a take-no-prisoners, get-it-done mentality and an emphasis on the virtues of less direct, more circuitous routes. The journey is the destination. While they would appear to balance each other, these extreme mentalities easily permit unhelpful or maladaptive behaviours which we justify under headings indicating psychological health – ‘think slow’ and the concept known as ‘the pause’, to name a few. Used as intended, these principles make mental space for ideas to flourish, reactions to be tempered and for stress to be offset by activation of the parasympathetic nervous system.
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However, there is a danger of using such principles as a licence to avoid doing or feeling. While psychology has tended to concentrate on extreme avoidance, such as that seen in avoidant personality disorder and social anxiety, avoidance is as common as procrastination – one of its many manifestations. Research reveals various factors that contribute to avoidance, from personality traits to vague and specific fears. One school of thought proposes that people avoid getting things done because they are seeking arousal. “This theory suggests that procrastinators may be a certain personality type, in particular, people who are thrill-seekers,” says Amy Reichelt, lecturer in psychology at RMIT University and contributor to The Conversation. “Leaving an important deadline or task until the last minute leads to a rewarding ‘rush’ once the task is complete,” says Reichelt. Some people have other procrastination triggers. They may put off doing something because they are perfectionists and fear that when starting a task, they can’t meet their own standard of high quality. Or avoidance may be driven by a different kind of fear; for example, the fear of what a medical test may show or the fear of what a frank conversation with their partner might provoke.
THE PROCRASTINATION PARADOX
We’re all guilty of procrastinating from time to time. Despite the imminent deadline, you do everything but the thing you need to, from checking emails and social media to making a cup of tea and tidying up your desk drawer. “Human motivation is highly influenced by how imminent a reward is perceived to be,” says Reichelt. “In other words, we discount the value of large rewards the further away they are in time. This is called the ‘present bias’. The tasks we tend to occupy ourselves with when procrastinating are those with a small, immediate, and shortterm value instead of the important, more valued task where the reward is delayed.” According to Reichelt, this process is called ‘temporal discounting’. “Basically, we overestimate the value of an outcome when it can be gained immediately,” she says. “It explains why we’re more likely to engage in low-value behaviours, checking Facebook, for instance, or playing computer games. Because getting a good score on a test next week is further away in time, so it’s less valued than it should be.”
Serial avoidance can undermine mental and physical health. “Chronic procrastinating reduces productivity and affects our state of mind by generating worry and stress,” says Reichelt. “As deadlines approach, they cause feelings of frustration and guilt for not working on a task when we were meant to.” The resulting stress can raise blood pressure and inflammation, ramping up the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Avoidance-related stress may also increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can contribute to weight gain. In addition, stress may compromise your sleep and mood, and lead you to snap at your nearest and dearest on days when you’re particularly under the pump. Here are some other examples of how serial avoidance may play into different aspects of your life.
• Career: If you’re always delaying tasks then rushing to finish them close to deadline, you may not be submitting your best work. Running late to meet deadlines can also work against you down the track when you seek promotion or a pay rise.
• Bank balance: Constantly late when paying bills? You are probably wasting money on late fees. Some people particularly do this in relation to atypical costs like parking or speeding fines, then they find themselves in court or being referred to a debt recovery company.
• Home environment: Putting off chores – such as cleaning, washing up and doing laundry – can create a more time-consuming job. Moreover, when you try to kick back and watch a Netflix series, you can’t quite relax because you know those chores are waiting (and growing bigger too). Putting off maintenance chores, like fixing a broken floorboard or staining the back deck allows greater wear and tear on your home, which may cost you more in the long term. It also robs you of the satisfaction of ticking those jobs off your ‘to do’ list.
• Motivation: The less you get done, the less you are likely to get done. And round and round you go in the avoidance cycle.
THE FEAR OF FEELING
“People will do anything, no matter how absurd, to avoid facing their own soul,” said Carl Jung. This is particularly true in relation to unpleasant thoughts and feelings. The desire to run from devastating or uncomfortable emotions is called ‘experiential avoidance’. Yet far from lessening our suffering, avoidance gives those feelings far more power. So if avoidance of negative feelings is not the answer, what’s a better approach? There is a widespread belief that if we just think positive thoughts, we can fast-track our way out of feeling depressed or anxious.
Yet new psychological approaches are challenging this idea. One in particular is called ‘acceptance and commitment therapy’. According to the ACT approach, when we try to avoid our negative thoughts, we often set ourselves up for a cognitive battle that we’re unlikely to win. To show why, Australian ACT and mindfulness expert Russ Harris proposes an exercise, where for a minute you try not to think about a banana. Far from being able to stop thinking about the yellow fruit, this avoidance only makes you focus on it more. “If our only way of dealing with our negative thoughts and stories is to battle with them – to try to disprove them, push them away, suppress them, distract ourselves from them or drown them out with more positive thoughts – then we will suffer unnecessarily,” says Harris, author of The Reality Slap.
According to Harris, the thoughts will not only keep coming back, but we will be exhausted by the constant act of trying to overcome them. Far from avoiding negative feelings, we need to acknowledge they are there. But according to Harris, we need to do this in ways that allow us to acknowledge our pain or depression without giving over to it. Defusion techniques are particularly helpful because they encourage us to view our emotions while not getting hooked by them, so that they don’t dominate or consume us.
Harris suggests some of the following:
• Distance yourself from your thoughts: Sing your negative thoughts out loud or silently in your mind to a nursery rhyme tune. Alternatively, see them on a television screen; now fade the colour and turn down the sound and make their image on the screen very small. “These techniques help create distance from those feelings so you learn to observe them without feeling upset,” Harris explains.
• View your feelings like a movie: “Allow them to freely flow through you without a struggle,” suggests Harris. “It helps to say: I am having the thought that I am unlucky/ hate my life/never cut a break and so on.”
• Name your fears: “Acknowledge: ‘Ah, there it is again, the I’m-notsmart-enough or the I’m-goingto-be-single-my-entire-life story,’” says Harris. “Giving your fears a title makes them easier to unhook from. Then ask yourself: ‘Is it helpful for me to dwell on this, to hold on to my fear or sadness and play it over and over in my mind?’ This will encourage you to realise that worry is no protection and does not better prepare you for the worst, but actually wears you out.” This is your cue to bring your thoughts back to the present and become mindful. “By being in the now and engaging in life through your five senses you cannot get caught up in fearful thoughts of the future or regretful feelings about the past,” says Harris.
Frustrated that your partner is not very affectionate or is leaving all the housework to you? Long term, avoiding talking about these kinds of issues can put your relationship in jeopardy. It can lead you to distance yourself, shut down, withdraw and disconnect, and none of these responses help you nourish intimacy or acknowledge problems and work through them. “Losing the connection with a loved one jeopardises our sense of security and sets off an alarm in the brain’s amygdala, our fear centre,” explains Sue Johnson, couples therapist, creator of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy and author of Hold Me Tight. According to Johnson, changing a pattern of avoidance is critical to long-lasting love; firstly because it can lead the other partner to keep pushing for connection. If the avoidance continues, the pursuing partner may then feel a “terrible sense of emotional aloneness, where they cannot gain emotional access to their loved one and so are deprived of much needed attention, care and soothing,” says Johnson. “There may also be a sense of feeling emotionally abandoned or rejected. The relationship then feels less and less like a safe place and you start to doubt that your partner is there for you, values you or will put you first.” The antidote? Engage in the opposite of avoidance by constantly working on being emotionally responsive and available to each other. This means expressing your feelings, whether that be through physical displays of affection or discussions about needs and vulnerabilities.
THE CAREER RUT
Is it you? The office ambience? Your fascist boss? If you are suffering serious job malaise, you need to clearly diagnose the cause, then do something about it. We spend a large proportion of our lives at work, so it’s important to move on from a job that you don’t like.
To help get the momentum going, Melbournebased psychologist Meredith Fuller suggests: • Update your CV and send it to the HR department of companies you would like to work at. Follow up with a call.
• Sign up to industry newsletters and career job sites to ensure you have the latest intel on new jobs, projects or opportunities. Apply for lots of jobs.
• Upskill in areas that create gaps in your CV.
• Approach a person in senior management and ask them to mentor you.
Do you know you should exercise more and eat a healthier diet but always put off starting? Do you find it hard to look at your naked body when you’re in the shower or getting dressed because you’re not happy with what you see? If so, your avoidance could be causing you to feel body shame, avoid intimate sexual contact and take less good care of your health.
To change this pattern, Meredith Fuller suggests:
• Move every day: If you do something you enjoy such as yoga or walking, you will be more likely to keep it up and feel better in your body.
• Sense your body: Embracing your body with kindness does not just involve thinking nice thoughts; it’s a mixture of attitudes and behaviours that allow you to enjoy how you feel. So become more mindful. When you’re in the shower, enjoy the smoothness of your skin under the soap; and when you’re sitting in the sun, notice how good the warmth is on your back. The more you learn to enjoy the way your body moves and feels, the better you will feel inside it.
• Keep a body image journal: Note the days you feel worse about your body and what has kick-started those feelings. This will help you recognise triggers that can be addressed.
• Avoid body criticism: Ask yourself, would you put down your child, best friend or partner in this way? Of course not – so it’s obviously not okay to say these things to yourself.
‘DO THIS’ ACTION BOX
How to start and stay on task Clearly, avoiding procrastination is preferable to 11th-hour panic.
Psychology lecturer Amy Reichelt shares strategies to get moving and stay on task:
• The Pomodoro technique: Break work sessions down into manageable 25-minute slots, with a small reward at the end, such as five minutes’ access to Facebook or a short coffee break. “The technique can aid productivity across the whole day,” says Reichelt.
• Self-imposed short-term deadlines: Make a timetable or list of smaller tasks to complete. “This increases the proximity of the deadline and decreases the chances of having to carry out the task at the last minute,” Reichelt explains.
• The nuts and bolts: Think about a task in more concrete, specific terms (the ‘how’, ‘when’ and ‘where’). Research from the University of Konstanz shows that those people who think about a task in concrete versus abstract ways are more likely to complete the task earlier.
• Projecting ahead: Brainstorm potential sources of procrastination and work out ways to avoid them. Use this list as motivation to jump in and move on to what needs doing.
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