Doris was so fed up with her messy desk that she finally sought my help. No matter how many times she promised herself that she would clean it up and clean it out she found lots of other things that came first. “It’s not a big desk. I should be able to finish the job in a few hours,” she whined. I proceeded to play the “What If” game with Doris in order to get to the bottom of her problem.

“What are you afraid will happen if you clean up your desk?” I asked. “I’ll feel better,” she replied. That is what procrastinators usually say. “Then what are you afraid will happen?” “It will look better.” “And then what are you afraid will happen?” “I’ll have time to clean out the book case.” I pushed and pushed asking, ”and then what are you afraid will happen?” after each of her comebacks until the light dawned. “If I clean up my desk I’ll have to clean up my life, and I’ll have to divorce my husband,” she blurted. Where did that come from? What does a messy desk have to do with marriage?

Disorganized desks, closets, garages, and file cabinets are often not what they seem. The procrastinator fixates on cleaning or clearing out some space, but that is not the primary problem. It is the symbol of another deeper issue. Over the years I have helped people discover the sometimes sad or frightening concern that lies at the heart of their procrastination.

I call this thinking process “logrolling.” Logrolling is a term used in politics to describe how politicians trade votes for their mutual benefit. For instance if the Senator from one state needs support for her bill about improving transportation she may contact the Senator from another state who proposes a bill about farming. They create one piece of legislation that includes both transportation and farming and push it through, although these two areas have nothing to do with each other.

When procrastinators link together two problems that are totally dissimilar they become paralyzed and unable to solve either one. I refer to that as “logrolling.” Jessica constantly complained that she couldn’t find the perfect man and was depressed. She had been divorced for seven years, and her ex-husband was happily re-married, yet Jessica still had some of his clothing in her closet. She desperately wanted to clean out the closet but couldn’t get around to it. It turned out that her unconscious wish was that her ex would come back to her, and she kept this possibility alive by symbolically keeping some of his belongings. Once she realized that a closet had nothing to do with grieving for the loss of her marriage she was able to get rid of his things and restore order to her closet.

Ed remodeled his entire house but, six months later still hadn’t put the knobs on the kitchen cabinets. He was exasperated and angry with himself for shirking the job. After he finished his tale of woe I insisted on asking him the “What if” questions. After a few rounds there was a long pause. Finally Ed said, “If I complete my house I won’t have any more excuses to not invite people over and socialize. Then I’ll have to get married again!” The irrationality of this thinking is mind boggling, yet all of us do it at some time.

One way to push past your stuckness is to play the “What if” game with yourself or have a friend grill you. Go to a quiet place where you can be free of interruptions. Ask yourself this question, “What am I afraid will happen if I complete this project or reach my goal?” Write or say out loud the first thing that comes to mind. Don’t judge yourself on your answer. Ask again, making sure you use the word “afraid” because that is what this is all about. Keep this up until you have run our of the easy answers like, “I’ll be happy” or “I’ll be healthy.” Eventually you’ll hit pay dirt. The answer that springs to mind may have nothing to do with the project you are dawdling over. That is the point. Desks don’t have anything to do with marriage and kitchens don’t have anything to do with commitment. It’s all just logrolling.

Author's Bio: 

Gloria Arenson, MS, MFT, specializes in using Energy Psychology techniques to treat stress, anxiety, panic, trauma, phobias, and compulsions. Her extensive knowledge of eating disorders and compulsive behaviors led her to write How To Stop Playing The Weighting Game, A Substance Called Food and Born To Spend. She is also co-author of Freedom At Your Fingertips. Her latest award-winning book is Five Simple Steps to Emotional Healing.

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