Procrastination is a nasty killer virus. It kills projects, destroys businesses and ends careers. The good news however, is that it’s curable.

You know the score, right? We are all theoretically cash ‘rich’ and time poor. Relatively speaking of course, compared to our parents, we have more buying power in terms of ‘luxuries’ and we can afford nice foreign holidays. That is of course if we can find the time to spend what we have. Fewer and fewer people are engaged in jobs that are wage based, i.e. paid by the hour.  In the UK with less manufacturing and the growing services industry means that employees are engaged on a salary, which really means that more people are paid for outputs/outcomes than their time inputs.  All of which means that if you want to do well you either work smarter or longer. Most people opt for the easier option, they put in more hours, the end result being that they become time poor.  Working over lunch, and early morning or a few or regular late evenings is the common answer to ‘getting on’.

For most tasks good is good enough

This happens because as we advance on a broad front, we’re not focussed on completing the 20% of tasks that will get 80% of the beneficial results. We are paranoid about dropping the ball. Given a hundred tasks we tend to think that we must complete all the tasks to a very high standard lest we be judged.

The truth is though that this just overwhelms us and leads to procrastination.  We constantly re-arrange our tasks, replacing the ones that we know are high priority/high benefit with other, lower priority tasks, or no tasks at all. We turn to tasks from which we derive immediate enjoyment, despite it being low priority or irrelevant – a distraction.  One of the characteristics of procrastination is that we are all too aware of the consequences of avoiding the important tasks, so then we live constantly with the guilt and a sense that we are frauds.

We’re hard-coded

The psychology of procrastination is well known, not generally well known, but well known to psychologists! Procrastination isn’t to be confused with laziness. We put more energy into avoiding certain tasks that we do in doing the task we have an aversion for.  Putting off certain activities, even when we know that are beneficial for the long term has its roots in behavioural economics. The theory is that early humans gained more benefit from saving the energy they needed to implement long-term plans in favour of saving it for dealing with immediate problems. In other words, we are hard coded to work on short-term survival, rather than long-term planning. There are also proven and tested links between procrastination and other human behaviours such as perfectionism and rebelliousness. Imagine telling a perfectionist that for 80% of tasks ‘good is good enough’.

In evolutionary terms, this kind of behaviour may have made sense but it is totally redundant in the modern workplace. Well, almost totally redundant, we all recognise that emergencies arise as a natural course of doing business, right? The trouble is that the ‘emergency’ is also the result of a short-term reward, but at an organisational level.

Procrastination is like a credit card: it's a lot of fun until you get the bill. Christopher Parker

Whilst one part of our brain can totally connect with the need for longer term planning, we subconsciously struggle with abstract motivations.  When the stress kicks in or we are under pressure we ‘reward’ ourselves with an activity that we get immediate feedback from. That immediate kick, otherwise known as a distraction, might come from some illicit browsing of the internet or from escalating a minor task which we can complete and see a quick and tangible result. The trouble with this short-term survival mode is that it’s not constructive for our careers, or mission, it’s mission creep. Career wise, those that progress well spend time investing in themselves by thinking longer-term and not just about short-term maintenance. Typically, they may seem selfish and self-absorbed.

How to fight procrastination.

  1. Recognise that procrastination is a habit, and like all habits, it can be eliminated.
  2. Develop a vivid vision of the longer-term result, whether that be career goals, project outcomes, business vision or socio-economic.
  3. Don’t be afraid to change your vision, based on new information and/or your needs
  4. Ringfence some time every day, preferably a time that you can control, to remind yourself of the desired end result.
  5. Draw up a set of themes against which you can set objectives and tasks, this could be areas of your private life and/or work life.
  6. Look to develop and understanding of the areas of your work where ‘good is good enough’. In other words, what are the 20% of tasks that if performed to a very high level (as close to perfect as you can) will produce 80 of the benefits to your desired outcome.
  7. Draw up a list of activities/actions which bring about immediate gratification/reward, such as:
  • Dinner in your favourite restaurant;
  • 10 mins internet shopping;
  • A fizzy drink;
  • A walk around the car park;
  • A visit to the gym.
  1. The size of the reward should match the size of the task and the achievement.
  2. Use hand written lists with drawings, if you’re not arty, doodle. Using a different medium for your to-do lists taps into a different part of your brain to the one you use for work. So if you’re a creative, use a computer.
  3. Have a monthly, weekly and daily list. Prioritise based on the desired end result and with a recognition that for some tasks, good is good enough.
  4. Roll forward incomplete tasks until they are complete.
  5. Break down big tasks into logical and rewardable sub-tasks, these are tasks that once complete you can reward yourself, see above
  6. Don’t be easily knocked off course, develop 10 ways to say ‘No’.
  7. Establish a STRONG relationship between the importance of a task, its completion and a reward.
And remember… “if you are not prepared to shape your world, be prepared for it to shape you” 
Post by Pete Wilson

Pete has worked in the technology and business change space for over 30 years. He's worked globally for large public sector and governmental bodies and for large private sector multinationals across numerous industry sectors.

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