Procrastination Is a Relationship Problem

Fear of disappointing others is an enemy of productivity

Kathleen Smith
Forge
Published in
5 min readJan 6, 2020

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A young businesswoman looking bored while working at her desk in a modern office
Photo: PeopleImages/E+/Getty Images

Martha’s New Year’s resolution was to start therapy, but she didn’t show up to my office until April. In her defense, she came in to talk about her trouble with deadlines.

Martha, who worked remotely as a pop-culture reporter for a popular website, told me in our sessions that her biggest challenge was procrastination. Her job had become uninteresting, and she would delay an interview or rewrites on an article until she convinced herself that there wasn’t enough time left for the article to be great. This generated anxiety, which further fueled the procrastination. She asked for extensions often, and her once-generous editors were growing frustrated.

Like most human challenges, Martha’s struggle originated in her relationships.

Unless you’re a doomsday prepper living off the grid, your job is relational — which means that procrastination is often a relationship problem. Anxiety in your relationships — with your colleagues, your family, and the larger world — can lead to worrying about how people will respond to your work, or slacking when someone else will step in to do it for you. It can make you distance yourself from those who expect you to do well, or pretend that you’re more capable than you are. It can make you focus on getting approval instead of developing ideas.

But rather than observing how we function in relation to others, we end up labeling our productivity problems as personality flaws. This leaves us feeling ashamed and stuck.

Martha certainly saw her procrastination as a character failing. She had read many time-management books, she told me, but always failed to apply the ideas in them. She believed that if she could teach herself to get up at five a.m. or abandon her reality-show addiction, she would unlock some superhero power of mass production.

Martha was so busy shaming herself that she failed to see the bigger picture. Because she worked from home, it was easy to forget that there were other humans in the game. She needed to shift her perspective.

I encouraged her to start by listing all the people who inhabited her brain when she felt anxious about her work…

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Kathleen Smith
Forge
Writer for

Kathleen Smith is a therapist and author of the book Everything Isn’t Terrible: Conquer Your Insecurities, Interrupt Your Anxiety, and Finally Calm Down.