Are you finding yourself juggling a million things, demands flying at you left right and centre, inbox overflowing and just can’t seem to get it together to get started? In these situations, do you tend to head into the kitchen and wander around, mind swirling, feeling overwhelmed and reaching for food? If so, then you’re definitely not alone and I have a word for it – “procrastineating.” Yes, you read that right, procrastination + eating has a new name and the good news is, there IS a way out. The tough news is that, as we say, “you gotta get in to get out” so let’s rock and roll to help you find ways to get shit done AND find better coping strategies than food.
So, procrastination is basically putting off stuff that needs to get done – in other words, trading the anxiety of the task(s) at hand for short-term pleasure or escape such as TV, internet or doing a myriad of other things. And for people who experience over-eating or binge-eating behaviour, I would say this is in the top 3 reasons that my clients report for turning to food in the absence of hunger.
Unfortunately, procrastineating can be a self perpetuating cycle (meaning it perpetuates itself) that can result in significant shame and guilt (and ironically, more anxiety) for many people. Most people have made numerous attempts at dieting, controlling their food or being super mean to themselves in an effort to address their procrastinaeating, only to fall in a heap when (inevitably) it is unsustainable. Only to blame themselves again. Argh.
Eating behaviour is complicated and, for lots of busy people who struggle in their relationship with food, eating and their bodies, it’s not about the food. I know right? And deep down, you probably know this. But when it comes to tackling a better way to live alongside food, it’s not an easy sell, believe me! Most women I meet say “I do so well in other areas of my life! Why can’t I get this right???” And you know what? I’ll be honest with you, the food bit is relatively straightforward. But figuring out how to have a more relaxed and peaceful relationship with food and your body can be a real challenge, particularly in a culture where we’re sold confusing ideas around what a “healthy body” looks like and how “you too can have the body you want!” (buy my program!) Argh, puh-lease.
For most highly intelligent people (which is pretty much everyone I see), I notice there’s a pattern around procrastineating which is appears as an association with perfectionism ie. the belief that it has to be perfect to be good enough. There’s no room to muck it up or do things sub-standard without consequences (ie you beating yourself up). Perfectionism makes it hard to give yourself credit for steps toward success or feel like you’ve accomplished something. Procrastination is tehn what happens when your perfectionism makes it too overwhelming to even get started or to take the next step.
Turning to food can certainly feel like an effective way to procrastinate. I mean, there’s a pay-off right? You get to delay anxiety (or other uncomfortable feelings) and get to feel good – for a short time. It’s also a way to squish down those “not good enough” feelings. Eating is a very common way to deal with feeling under pressure, feeling tired, seemingly endless to-do lists, with not feeling appreciated and like you’ll never get enough done. Then once procrastineating happens, perfectionism is that nasty but predictable voice that says, “Now you’ve done it. You’ve stuffed it all up so you might as well just eat some more.” Which brings us full circle back to procrastination (“I’ll start over on Monday/next week”) and feeling defeated and overwhelmed by the food that you just turned to. Often this works in a cycle, and as the cycle repeats, challenges feel bigger, perfectionism is still there, and eating probably feels more out of control.
How do I know if procrastineating is a “thing” for me?
The main litmus test is really about how problematic it is in your life. Are you turning to food for non-hungry reasons but life is quite organised and you’re actually getting things done? Or do you routinely put things off and eat instead, or turn to food as your main coping strategy when you’re feeling overwhelmed? If you relate to this, and feel ready to contemplate how to break the procrastineating cycle, my first tip is to expect some challenges – it’s not an “easy 3 step process” or anything. My second tip is to seek some professional support if you can from someone who can help you address what’s lying underneath – maybe it’s anxiety, low mood, perfectionism, poor body image or general life difficulties. Having an experienced person who can support you can make a huge difference – you could start with a Psychotherapist or Non Diet Approach Dietitian but please make sure they are experienced with eating difficulties.
Tips to address procrastineating
Build awareness. Through awareness we can find space for choice. In this space, we might turn to food but sometimes we may not. The best way to develop this muscle is to build mindfulness skills (noticing your present moment experience, without judgement). You don’t have to do formal meditation (although for many people this is very helpful) but noticing your sensory experiences, thoughts and feelings can be useful.
Cultivate curiosity and give yourself the space and permission to learn from what’s going on. This might feel a bit like “ewwww…..I don’t like that!” but when we turn away from our experience we lose the opportunity to learn and grow.
If you do end up eating, please don’t beat yourself up. Particularly if you created awareness, and it happened anyway. Awareness is not a magical elixir! It simply offers you some choice. You may not like what’s going on, but beating yourself up about it is not helping. The real truth is, we choose our behaviours for a reason and if you can create awareness around why you are choosing to procrastinate and why food calls to you in certain situations, you’ll feel a lot more in charge.
Do the best you can with the time and energy you have for now. Stay realistic about what you can get done in the time you have. If necessary, make a separate to-do list that feels like a good match for the time and energy you have for now.
Be kind to yourself. Notice any mean or hurtful self talk and try to remind yourself that you’re human. If a short personal phrase or mantra helps (such as “Fiona, take it easy. You’re doing the best you can”), try that.
Do something (even something really small) NOW. Every moment holds opportunities for choice.
Consider breaking the task into smaller steps. You only have to move forward a very short distance to create the beginning of momentum. Aim to focus on the next helpful action you can take, rather than getting distracted by what might seem a long road ahead.
Acknowledge your needs. Turning to food is a common choice for busy people who are attempting to cope with many uncomfortable feelings, stress, worry, and insecurity.
Build your toolkit – to be able to meet your needs and NOT use food, you’ll need other strategies and tools. Building your unique toolkit means that you’ll need to listen to yourself from a place of respect and care that you can understand what’s going on, and what you need. Aim to stay curious about your experiences & open to learning about yourself.
Loosen the grip on perfectionism – You are whole human being and you won’t always get it right or even the way you wish for it to be. All we can expect is our best and all we can do is to keep moving forward.
Set boundaries – it’s OK to say no. Aim to take on only as much as you can handle. And this might change from time to time.
Notice urges to turn away from your task – notice what happens in your body when urges arise. Where can you notice the urge? Take a breath and aim to sit for around 5 minutes (more if you can), and just notice what happens. Again, it’s not a magical way to “not eat” but can help you understand more about the comings and goings of urges & your reactions.
Experiment with moving to another location – as humans we’re heavily cued into our environments and people who identify as procrastineaters often say that if there’s food around and it’s a tough time, it’s difficult to stay focussed on the task at hand. This can often just be a short-term strategy as you build up your toolkit.
OK lovely people, I need to be really clear about one thing right here – the point of all of this is NOT to “not eat” (because honestly, that’s a sure way for this to backfire big time and mimic dieting). The point is to build your coping skills and address what’s perpetuating the procrastineating so that you have choice in the moment. Turning to food when we’re having a tough time is actually one coping skill, but one of many.
If you feel ready to tackle your procrastineating, I’ll leave you with this offering:
It is possible.
You’re not alone.
It’s not about the food.