Do you leap into a cleaning frenzy when a big project looms?
I do that too, and so do several of my clients.
I’ve been curious about this tendency. I’ve been reluctant to call it procrastination. It is, I get that, and yet, that description feels like it skates the surface. It doesn’t adequately provide a sufficient explanation of the forces driving this need to suddenly clean the house from top to bottom.
I noticed it again today when I sat down to work on a presentation. Suddenly, the piles of laundry I’d successfully ignored all week demanded my immediate attention. The desire to bake banana bread was nearly incessant, as was the desire to schedule a spa weekend with friends.
What was going on?
It turns out men and women handle stress differently. Shelly Taylor, a UCLA-based professor of health psychology, was the first researcher to question the belief that men and women both respond to stress with fight-or-flight. Instead, she posited the theory that women demonstrate a tend-and-befriend reaction to stress.
Tending is about caretaking. According to Taylor’s theory, our ancestors on the savanna would have cooperated to ensure survival when attacked by invaders or predators. The men of the tribe would have been responsible for drawing the predators away from the group, while the women comforted and hushed the children, and then softly melted away with them into the brush while the men fought it out.
Befriending resulted as women bonded with other women, these friendships increasing the odds of survival, as women worked together, especially when on the run, or if the men had been killed or wounded.
Recognizing a pattern of behavior for what it is, helps.
In this case, what I was experiencing was a natural part of my stress response system as a woman. Realizing my sudden desire to do laundry and swab down bathrooms was less about procrastination and much more about the underlying anxiety I was feeling, helped me reign in my cleaning frenzy. Instead of spending the day “tending” and giving the house a full-on fall cleaning, I gave myself two hours to straighten and clean. By setting a time limit, I allowed myself to take advantage of the soothing effect cleaning or “tending” has on me. Yet, I didn’t let tending become an excuse to distract myself from what I knew I needed to do, which was to spend quality time knocking out a presentation.
Calling friends to chat or scheduling a walk or a bike ride is another way I would have “procrastinated”. However, running away from home only prolongs the pain of a project. So, noticing my desire to call up friends, I used my “befriending” tendency as a carrot. If I got my presentation done, I would get to go for a walk with a girl friend and have a nice long chat. I did and we did. It was a perfect solution.
When we understand, how as women we are hard-wired for the tend-and-befriend response when feeling stressed and anxious, we can stop beating ourselves us for “procrastinating”. Instead we can see our behavior for what it is, a symptom of feeling stressed. When we realize what we are doing actually helps us soothe ourselves, we may approach the “chores” we are suddenly taking on in a radically different light. It’s a much friendlier way to be with ourselves, after all, we’re feeling stressed out already, no need to make it worse!
If you would like to explore ways to kick-start your productivity, I will be happy to be your thought-partner in this exploration.
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Give yourself the gift of space and time to reflect. You can, of course, do this on your own some rainy afternoon, sitting with your journal.
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