I invited Dr. Renate Rieman back to discuss her newly released CD, “Move Beyond Procrastination™ and Get Things Done!” She’s a returning favorite — her first appearance was the #1 most popular episode of Tom on Leadership in 2009.
The CD is an outgrowth of a popular workshop Renate has put on for a while. She recorded one of the workshops and then added more material, and edited it, to make it useful for home study.
She starts with reasons why we procrastinate, then with techniques to address the reasons, and finally implementation for long term success. There are lots of exercises.
Most people don’t know why they procrastinate, and they get very upset with themselves — this eats up the energy that they have, so they have neither the ability nor the energy to make progress.
I asked Dr. Rieman where someone should start. She first recommends looking at reasons and triggers for procrastinating.
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One reassuring thing Renate helps people realize is that they actually are highly functional in many areas of their lives. By taking an inventory of major life tasks and activities, and finding which ones involve procrastination and which do not, people get a sense that maybe they aren’t so bad.
For example, one client can never get her clothes out of the dryer and into her closets or dresser — she ends up using the dryer as a dresser — because her closets are so cluttered and disorganized there’s no place to put the clothes.
The Function of Procrastination
Most procrastination behavior is really not exactly dysfunctional. While it the procrastination behaviors (like playing Solitaire on the computer) do prevent you from getting your “real” work done, they also can be helpful in reducing feelings of stress, at least temporarily. If we don’t schedule in rest time, our minds and bodies will need it anyway — and in some cases procrastination behavior is the only relaxation we get.
If that behavior is not very re-energizing, then you’d be better off scheduling in some relaxation time and make a point of really resting.
Poor Time Estimates and Poor Time Management
One of Renate’s clients was keen to write a memoir, and unrealistically set the goal of writing for 2-3 hours each night — after working a full day. He wasn’t able to do it.
That’s a common pattern with problem procrastination.
Another error is to not take breaks and not take lunch. That’s often a mistake. With no breaks and no rest, your mental capacity can become so low that you actually make negative progress — you create mistakes that will cost you hours of time to fix once you catch it.
Don’t fall into the trap of trying to look busy. If your work culture rewards that, find ways to fight that culture.
Stress and Procrastination
People who are not bothered by their own procrastination are often not stressed. Those people who are deeply bothered by their procrastination are stressed, often deeply.
Serious procrastination is often connected with serious loneliness. It’s hard to admit that you have the problem — sufferers often try to hide the procrastination, work longer hours to try to make it up, and thereby increase their own overall stress load.
The more a person experiences helplessness, the more that person may internalize the belief that they have no choices — and when a choice does arrive, that person will ignore the choice because they just aren’t able to perceive it as an option. Such a person becomes trapped mentally — they have internalized their limits, and impose them on themselves even when their external limits go away.
Folks with serious procrastination can be so caught up in the problem that they lose perspective. Those folks can get real benefit from an external resource like a therapist or coach.
One of Renate’s clients only came to her because she was desperate and feared being fired from her job. Renate worked with her to understand her daily patterns. For this client, her pattern included working nonstop for up to 12 hours at a stretch. The lack of any breaks was causing her effectiveness to drop — after the first few hours her productivity was very low.
Over time this client was able to become much more aware of the daily ebb and flow of her energy, and could start to match her tasks to her rhythms — she did high demand work during high energy periods, and was able to take breaks to rest and regain mental energy.
Eventually, this client was completely turned around, began to catch up on her work, and found increasing relaxation and productivity in her job.
First Step – Awareness
Renate agrees that a good first step in breaking out of a bad procrastination habit is to analyze the causes — those causes can include –
- Skill level
- Resource missing
- Timeframe unclear or too short
- Scale of project is overwhelming
- Other strong emotion that prevents progress
- Looking busy is rewarded by your culture
- Too much work is considered normal
- Expectation of keeping up with gadgets and technology
Ultimately, Renate believes, serious procrastination indicates a mis-alignment at some level between what you want and what others want, and the procrastination serves to reduce the tension in that mis-alignment. For example, if you fear deep down that upgrading your version of some key program is going to cause your whole PC to become unstable, you may procrastinate on following your firm’s policy of upgrading.
(Listen to the full interview here.)