I came away from this program with a strong belief that procrastination can be beaten — and beaten almost easily.
Procrastination is like driving into a narrow alley and finding it’s blocked by a brick wall — it’s a cul-de-sac. No amount of trying to move forward — of beating yourself up, of “trying harder” or the like — will help. You have to back up.
“Backing up” in this case means to distance yourself from the task you’re procrastinating on, and to be reflective — get a sense of which of the major causes of procrastination is at work here:
- Frustration or Confusion
Because each one gets tackled differently.
If the task is one you don’t think you really ought to be doing — it’s really your brother’s chore to do not yours, or it’s really Sally’s job not yours, or it’s really the job of Sales and not yours. That sort of mind set can make it hard to do this task.
One solution is not to do it. Be brave and simply say “no”.
Otherwise you’re engaging in passive-aggressive resistance. If that’s the case, be aware of it and seek the causes of your feeling. It’s not the task that makes you feel this way, it’s something about your relationship — go work on that.
Another cause of resentment might be that you don’t see a connection between this task, and the things that you care about. In this case, you should back away from the problem and think about the big picture.
One store manager that I know — a natural leader — was brought in to run a hardware store that had terrible morale problems. One challenge was that nobody wanted to clean the bathrooms. You can easily imagine how a worker with low morale could justify not cleaning the bathroom: I’m a stock clerk, it’s not my job, it takes me away from my real work, nobody else does it, why am I stuck with it, it’s just going to make me late with my other work and then I’ll get yelled at for that.
In this case, the leader started cleaning the bathrooms himself, demonstrating by example that the task was important. He also made it clear why clean bathrooms were just as important as fully stocked shelves — both of these things made the customers happy. By reconnecting the task with the larger mission, and by showing how important the task was, he made it much easier for his workers to not procrastinate it.
What if you are not the leader? Act like one anyway. To develop your own leadership skills, look for ways to continually connect every task you do with some larger goal. Every time you do, you make that task easier and more meaningful. You also practice something that we will talk about later when we cover Vision. And if you ever find a task that you simply cannot connect to anything more important, maybe you should stop doing that task.
When this task calls on a skill that you’re not very good at, you can feel frustration. That frustration can be such a negative feeling that the act of putting off the task will feel good. That good feeling becomes rewarding, and can become a habitual response to that sense of frustration. And that means we never get started.
The positive way out of this trap is to notice that you feel that your skills aren’t up to the task, and seek out ways to improve your skills, or people who have the skills. Now, you are moving forward.
Confusion is a little like frustration — both can cause a feeling of anxiety. However, you fix them in different ways. You will know that you’re experiencing confusion-based procrastination if you are unsure what the next step is, or you are not sure where to start.
The positive way out of the confusion trap is to stop and ask yourself whether you have a clear roadmap for this task, and whether you can identify the next step that you’ll take. Getting clear on those answers will help you push through your procrastination, and get moving.
Procrastination based on fear is usually fear of the unknown. It may be similar to frustration or confusion (above), or it may be a different source of fear. I had a client once, a lawyer, who experienced an almost paralyzing fear when confronting a complex case. The solution for him was to create a detailed process that he could follow every time he noticed himself experiencing that fear: he would first only commit himself to opening up the case of looking at it, and not doing anything else. This was a specific enough, and limited enough, activity that he felt comfortable doing it with any case of any size. Once he had done that, the case was no longer a mystery, and his fear of the unknown gave way to other things — sometimes he would simply work it out, other times he would move on to confusion or frustration. And his process would then cover both of those. The second step after reading the case was to outline a possible approach. That took care of confusion. The third step was to list all of the expertise that he would need and that he himself did not possess. This became a roadmap for who to consult with — and it addressed frustration.