I overheard a conversation in the coffee line on Monday that bothered me all week.
Person 1: What’s up with you today? You seem a bit off.
Person 2: I’m ok—just a bit stressed.
Person 1: Really? Work stress or home stress?
Person 2: I don’t know. Both, I guess. I have this huge project and there’s a lot of pressure with it. I really need it to go well. There’s just so much to do and I can never get ahead. I’ll probably have to work all evening every night this week to get it done.
Person 1: Didn’t you just say you took a fake sick day on Friday?
Person 2: (nervously laughs): Ha! Well, yes…but…
Person 1: You need to stop procrastinating. You wouldn’t be stressed if you just got the work done.
The conversation quickly changed after that, but I was left feeling sorry for Person 2 as she walked away. The path from sharing symptoms to diagnosis and treatment and was so quick, I got whiplash. Of course, there’s only so much time to diagnose while waiting for a latte, but it was clear to me that she was expressing an issue larger than just lack of time.
Just this week, The New York Times shared an article called “Why You Procrastinate (It Has Nothing to Do With Self-Control).” The article essentially debunked the myth that procrastinators are lazy or disorganized. Shockingly, we put off things that put us in a bad mood. Why do so many people wait to file their taxes until the last minute? Why do we wait until the last minute to renew our car registration? Because those activities are tedious, uncomfortable, frustrating or….wait for it….stressful.
Going back to the conversation above, Person 2 didn’t hide the fact that she was stressed. She was open about the pressure and how worried she is about the project. Yes, she also shared that the workload is cumbersome, but that was after expressing the emotional toll the project was having on her. She didn’t procrastinate on Friday because she lacks self-control. She took a fake sick day to avoid the mental torture she was placing on herself by focusing on the pressure, need to be perfect, and consequences of failing. She became paralyzed by the stress.
When stress is overwhelming, the brain can engage a fight or flight response. Fight by digging in and overcoming the challenge, or flight by doing anything to avoid thinking about the impending deadline. Personally, my house is never more organized than when I’m worried about something at work or feeling like I lack control. Workplace stress paralysis doesn’t mean you fail to act at all, it means you fail to act on anything that would resolve the stress. Sometimes, you just don’t know where to start. Imagine a hoarder trying to decide where to start cleaning. This perfectly encapsulates the mind of someone experiencing stress paralysis. Logically, we know the house won’t clean itself. And just cleaning one room at a time is a healthy milestone, but logic plays a small role when the stress is extreme. It’s hard to reason with the amygdala.
This is why so many tips for overcoming paralyzing stress are useless. For example, telling someone to approach it like “ripping off a band-aid” or to break the project up in small pieces sounds like a reasonable, productive idea. However, if the root problem isn’t project management, then it’s unlikely that project management tactics will help. The root of the problem is stress itself.
The core issue is worrying that the presentation won’t go well. Or that the sales person won’t hit their quota. Or that the proposal won’t get accepted. The core issue is the worrying and self-doubt. Certainly, procrastinating and poor time management only contribute to the stress cycle and perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy, but procrastination hacks won’t cause the amygdala to budge.
As a leader, it’s easy to spot things like a missed deadline, lack of progress on a project, too much attention on low priority activities, or hours of scrolling through social media. When those behaviors are visible, it’s an opportunity to dig deeper to see if something more complex is happening beneath the surface. Reinforcing confidence in the employee and expressing your support for them will have a greater impact than by telling them to “just do it.”