Psychological Self-Tools - Online Self-Help Book

Are You Ready to Declare Your Emancipation Procrastination?

Mark Gorkin, LICSW

The Stress Doc provides techniques and tips for helping you manage time and to focus and free up your mind. When under the gun or with deadlines looming, sometimes the best thing to do is PANIC. Discover the Stress Doc's acronym for "Emancipation Procrastination."

Are You Ready to Declare Your "Emancipation Procrastination? Or Is It Time to PANIC?

Productively managing your time is critical in a 24/7, always on-anytime-anywhere world that is forever cycling between upgrading and downsizing (or, at least, reorganizing), or when there's serious blurring if not fading of the boundary between your work and home lives. And it's not just the mission or goal attainment on the line. Actually, you are on the line and the line can feel like a rope tightening around the neck. Or perhaps you're walking a tightrope, juggling all those demanding roles and responsibilities, hoping you'll make the finish line in time and in one piece. No wonder today's survival question is, "Can there be life after deadlines?"

As I once penned: Deadlines, deadlines, all that aggravation Whew, you only have time for procrastination!

No need to panic. Just consider this acronym for surviving the time crunch and for helping you declare your "Emancipation Procrastination." On second thought, go ahead, PANIC:

P = Priorities and Perfection

a. Priorities. As an old girl friend, at the time a medical student, would frequently avow: "I can't do it all!" And apparently she was right. According to the oft-cited Pareto Principle (propounded by a 20th century Italian sociologist), 80% of your results are achieved by 20% of your activities. For me, this means that while I engage in a variety of marketing efforts to generate speaking programs and workshops -- a website, a newsletter, networking meetings, mailings, article writings, etc. -- actually doing a speaking program leads to the 80% spin-off rate (via word of mouth. Which is why I don't hesitate to do free or low fee showcase presentations).

Another way of envisioning this concept: for a restaurant, 20% of the items on the menu account for 80% of the orders. So, unless you run a restaurant, the nice thing about this principle is you can drop 4/5 of your activities without feeling guilty. ;-)

Another key component of priorities is the criticality of the task, request or demand. Remember, only "urgent" must get done NOW! "Important" allows for response time options, and important can be prioritized. However, it is often critical to let others know of your priority list or of changing priorities. Especially when the other is significant, for example, a spouse or a supervisor, and you have a question about what and how to prioritize, discern what tasks or results are essential for the other party. (And sometimes it's best to obtain measurable metrics regarding task and timeline expectations.)


Urgent means NOW, important can wait
When all else fails…
Do you know how to delegate?

b. Perfection. Actually, rigid perfectionism can block an ability to delegate. The perfectionist often has an inordinate need for control. There is a fear that others won't live up to his or her expectations. Remember, complaining that no one works to your standard may eventually evoke agreement and a self-fulfilling prophecy: "You're right, no one can do things like you. Go ahead and do it yourself!"

And perfectionist tendencies can induce paralysis -- a fear of getting started as well as a fear of completion. The dysfunctional inner mantra: "If you don't try you can't fail." You still are potentially perfect. And in a society where winning is everything, who wants to risk being a "loser." Time to attack this dis-ease of procrastination.

A = Avoidance and Advance

a. Avoidance. Why do we start cleaning the living room when we should be working on that important report with a looming deadline? Here are several factors contributing to delay, dalliance and denial:

1) fear of failure -- not living up to expectations of significant others or of your own hyper-critical standards

2) fear of success -- what will others expect of you the next time; can you live up to your own benchmark?

3) smoldering anger -- you resent having to do the task; perhaps you believe the project was assigned without clear or sufficient instructions or was delegated unfairly, i.e., the task should have fallen on someone else's shoulders

4) time disorientation -- you convince yourself that there's no rush, you have plenty of time; another rationalization is that you do your best work at the eleventh hour. For most people this is a smoke screen. And even when the last minute does motivate the procrastinator, it rarely encourages his or her best effort. (More on this point shortly.)

5) insufficient resources -- sometimes there is a logical (as opposed to a psychological) reason for procrastination: you don't have the proper supplies or tools to successfully and/or safely meet the demand. It's time to express your frustration and concerns with your manager. However, if you are reluctant to take a stand, then avoidance issues may be at play. (Unless, of course, you are dealing with Attila the Hun; but then why haven't you updated your resume and started a job search?)

b. Advance. Let's return to those eleventh hour performers. The only folks who might be able to write a quality report before the clock strikes midnight are people who have been mentally rehearsing or writing the report in their head over a period of time. Now if you are another Mozart, skip this section. However, if you are like most of us, and want to do quality work that also is original or displays some imagination, then you need to sleep on the job. That is, you need to hit that problem-solving wall, sleep on the issue and then bring a fresh set of eyes to the project. And to maximize the creative effect, this problem solving process should be oft repeated. Clearly, for this multi-step procedure you need to give yourself sufficient lead-time.

Here's a personal example: I'm writing this rough draft by hand; trying to sketch out the broad and central ideas or "the forest." Upon completion, I will commence word processing -- first to tighten up the sentence structure and length, the grammar, etc. In addition, putting down a rough draft helps clear my field of vision, allowing me better see and shape the specific ideas and issue, that is, "the tress." Repeatedly surveying the forest and the trees allows me to design new patterns of relationships, to make unexpected conceptual connections, to engage in word play (e.g., "emancipation procrastination") to recall former tree stories or to come up with useful analogies (such as broad and specific ideas represented by "forest" and "trees"). And finally, I may create a larger or more fertile context, even a "field of dreams," in which to plant this conceptual mix of seeds, trees and forest. And "aha," spring happens…it just takes cultivation, patience and some luck (which tends to occur with a prepared mind).

N = "'No' and Negotiate" and Designated Nagger

a. "'No' and Negotiate" (N & N). In light of our 24/7, always on world, "N & N" is as vital as "R & R" (Rest & Recreation) for managing stress as well as organizing a schedule. And not surprisingly, there's an art to saying "No" and "Negotiating." Consider these steps:

1) Be Decisive. When someone makes a request (and the person does not have demand power, e.g., disciplinary or firing authority) give a quick and clear "No." However, this is not a slam the door "No." In fact, when necessary, a more tactful initial reply might be, "Based on my existing schedule, I have a problem with your request."

2) Clarify Your "No." Paraphrase the request; the other party needs to hear that you understand the importance of the request. Then state what you can't do at this moment, while also sharing how you can be of assistance.

3) Ask for Feedback. By encouraging the other party's feedback you are flushing out their disappointment, anxiety or anger. Handling their emotional display in a non-defensive manner helps build trust. The other person has also demonstrated that they can blow off steam in your presence. Ironically, research shows that this push back process actually makes people more open to your initial position. It's why sales people are trained to ask a prospective buyer for any negatives or concerns.

4) Repeat, If Necessary. People don't like to hear a "No," especially if they have an accommodating nature. These folks are not above trying a guilt trip. Don't go for the bait and do repeat your "No" and the parameters of helping. And don't be put off by the need for repetition. Some will test you to see if there is resolve behind your "No." Remember, Difference and Disagreement =/= Disapproval and Disloyalty

5) Be Concise. State your "No" in as pithy a manner as possible. Over explaining your stance just weakens your position and your standing. Being brief and to the point lends both conviction and authority to your "No." Upon making a counteroffer people are more likely to believe you will deliver.

6) Take a Time Out. If you don't feel comfortable proclaiming a "No," consider getting back to the person in a defined period of time. However, whenever possible, trust your gut and risk the "No." You can always reconsider at a later point. As the old saw goes: "Better to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission."

7) Summarize the Understanding. Review both parties' positions and expectations, including relevant time frames, resources and follow-up monitoring procedures. Taking the time and thought to give a constructive "No" and to have a dialogue that provides opportunity for win-win resolution.

b. Designated Nagger (DN). So you can't get started on that anxiety-provoking project. Easy, just find a "designated nagger." However, be discriminating in your selection. Don't choose someone like your mother or spouse who already performs the function unasked. (Such a choice is a formula for a power struggle or passive-aggressive defiance.) With booster in hand, schedule a morning nag or an after lunch reminder. And if venting about your reluctance to do the assignment or of its absurdity eventually gets you in gear, great. However, the DN should not allow more than five minutes for "kvetching." (Nagging and "kvetching"…if not already of the persuasion, you just might become an honorary Jew.)

I = Initiation and Incubation Vacation

a. Initiation. The key to overcoming procrastination paralysis is taking a simple yet effective first step. Especially when an important project seems so global and overwhelming and you don't know how or where to begin…think small. Consider these structured steps:

1) for profound paralysis lay out your working materials the night before, with no expectation of doing more that evening. As we've seen, sleeping on a problem may provide new energy or perspective. Or, if you have a restless night, you just may get up and attack the problem (and begin to work out your anxiety).

2) for a difficult writing project, for example, don't attempt to start composing; sketch a rough outline or just jot down some bullet points. By breaking into the amorphous mass, by creating a small working window, the nature of the writing project has changed. It is no longer so impenetrable or imponderable.

3) similar to the above, limit your start-up time to five or ten minutes. And no matter what you have or have not accomplished, walk away from the task. Again, knowing that there's an acceptable escape plan will likely: a) reduce some start-up anxiety, b) allow you to survey the problematic battlefield, if not plant some conceptual seeds and c) help you mull over or engage in an area of attack.

Of course, if the time limit has given you a productive jump-start, feel free to keep on truckin or writing. So consider my mother's intervention in the face of her son's procrastination. She would quote the ancient Roman poet, Horace: To begin is to be half done. Dare to know -- start! (And you wonder why I'm such an expert on stress, guilt and neuroses.)

b. Incubation Vacation. Actually, once getting started on a project, especially a complex one, often it's necessary to hit another wall if you want to achieve something novel or surprising. This process of being stuck has been called "thrustration," which I've defined as being torn between frustration and thrusting ahead with direct action as you haven't quite identified or put together the key pieces of the problem solving puzzle.

Now you want to step back from consciously grappling with this tension or with the problematic issue and create a diversion -- ride a bike, go for a hike, or sleep on the problem. Don't try will-powering your way to a solution. You want to take an "incubation vacation" to hatch a new perspective. What's the link between thrustration and incubation? Thrustration tension stirs up the right hemisphere of the brain, stimulating brain chemicals that help produce more emotionally evocative and visual imagery. For example, people in states of exuberance or hypomania tend to demonstrate more expansive and fluid thinking often generating novel relationships among seemingly disparate elements or ideas.

So after you've done considerable logical preparation, the thrustration experience primes your psychic volcano. And taking an incubation vacation means you've let go of a habitual problem solving path or procedure. You are ready to explore and mine those red-hot nuggets percolating up from your inner depths.

C = Compartmentalize and Creative Space

a. Compartmentalize. Juggling and working on several projects or tasks simultaneously is accepted as a necessary survival skill in this "TnT" -- Time and Task-Driven -- world. Yet surely dangers lurk. All I have to do is envision someone driving his car, talking on a cell, while sipping a latte and, speaking of TnT, I'm ready to explode. (Hey, haven't you heard…hands free driving is the rage in DC, not to mention mind-free politicking.)

Moving beyond my cathartic moment, inappropriate or excessive multi-tasking often divides and compromises one's attention and skill capacity. Not surprisingly, the stage is set for accidents and errors. And being spread too thin can also undermine project efficiency ("do the thing right") and effectiveness ("do the right thing"). While the need for "doing more with less" is oft cited as a rationale, the multi-tasking reality can easily regress into "doing less with more" (distraction).

A state of undivided attention is usually essential for timely and high quality performance. How to compartmentalize:

1) For a period of time, turn off the cell phone. I recall a lobbyist for a large drug company defying the company's 24/7 availability policy. His rationale: he needed to recharge his battery to operate effectively in such a high-powered environment. And his success at work became the bottom line,

2) Announce closed-door time or availability hours,

3) Negotiate project priorities and time lines with your supervisor,

4) Structure or segment your day, e.g., I answer emails and tackle busy paperwork or proposals between 7-9am. (I try to get the least enjoyable stuff out of the way to free up high energy for the remainder of the day.) And whenever possible, from 9:30 till noon, to draw on Virginia Woolf's phraseology, I find "a room of one's own."

b. Creative Space. For creative thinking and writing, I leave the home-cave behind and head to Café Monet. (Just the name alone inspires word artistry.) The café has a sensory laden, N'Awlins gumbo ambiance with its mix of outdoor wrought iron tables facing a wall mural of scenes of the Seine. Sensory stimulation continues with its inside off the yellow wall display of oil and water color paintings, the buzz of fellow patrons, a background of eclectic music -- from Broadway and the blues to folk and classical -- spacious tables, along with my standard order of Jasmine tea and a tasty bran muffin…And I'm cooking.

Now some would find the above distracting; for me it helps generate a focused state of relaxed attention. The key is finding a "TnT" workspace where "Time" sets the stage for "Talent" and "Thrustration"; you are not just being "Task"-driven. An individual mind planted in a fertile space, with hours and days to sow and reap, will not just manage time. Such a mind-body gestalt is on the path of "Emancipation Procrastination." And such a space-time continuum often helps launch the liberation of the imagination along with the human spirit.

Closing Summary

Techniques and tips for managing time and to focus and free up your mind have been delineated. When under the gun or with deadlines looming, sometimes the best thing to do is PANIC. Grab onto the Stress Doc's acronym for "Emancipation Procrastination":

P = Priorities and Perfection
A = Avoidance and Advance
N = "No" and Negotiate and Designated Nagger
I = Initiation and Incubation Vacation
C = Compartmentalize and Creative Space

Surely, these concepts and tools will help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is a psychotherapist and "Motivational Humorist" whose Interactive Keynotes and Kickoffs draw wide and "amazing" acclaim - from Fortune 100s and Federal Agencies to around the world with Celebrity Cruise Lines. An OD/Team Building Consultant, Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior. Also, the Doc is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat." See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- (cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR). Finally, Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- -- a multi-award winning mental health resource. Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs and products, email or call 301-946-0865.

(c) Mark Gorkin 2005 Shrink Rap Productions


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