Most of us do it – which technically means we don’t do it, really.
I’m talking about procrastination, that annoying habit we have of letting things languish. Everyone has something they are ignoring. There is the file that needs to be cleaned up, organized and put in a secure place. And the project report we promised a colleague we’d read and comment on, which is due any day now and sits in the bottom of our pile of reading. More pressing is the difficult phone call to tell a valued customer they won’t be getting what they want. Or the face-to-face conversation with an employee about how his or her dysfunctional behaviour with teammates has now become a performance issue.
In reality, we aren’t really ignoring these things at all. They weigh heavily on us. They creep into our day as we spend time feeling guilty, rationalizing or dwelling on our lack of initiative. In some cases they manifest as headaches or stomach pain. How can you stop something that is so pervasive and so unconscious? Let’s look at reasons for procrastination and some tips on how to overcome it.
- Boredom. Let’s face it, some of the stuff we have to do is downright monotonous, tedious and boring. Of course, what’s boring for some, isn’t boring for others. What makes your eyes glaze over? Is it working with numbers (I sympathize), writing up annual objectives, sorting and filing, listening to complaints? Be aware of your own boredom triggers. Schedule those must-do activities for a time of day when you have high energy or when you are in a particularly pleasant mood.
- You’re an adrenalin junkie. The idea of working at a normal pace, steadily toward a deadline, causes some people to yawn. A group of people were asked when they start to get excited about a project that has a 6 month deadline. A majority of them said their interest didn’t really start until the last few weeks. Obviously the excitement of the last-minute race makes it worth holding off. If you say things like, “I do my best work under pressure,” or “There is no use getting an early start – I’ll change it all near the end anyway,” admit you crave excitement. Then think about other ways to get your adrenaline than through the panic of last-minute work. You might want to add more physical activity, especially cardio workouts, to your day.
- The work is too big to begin. This reason isn’t uncommon, especially in cases of getting organized or cleaning up (anyone have a garage or attic in mind?) The best thing to do is chunk the project into smaller bits. Divide physical space into squares, or a file desk into drawers, and just do one at a time. When you are overwhelmed, picture the end result instead of visualizing all the work along the way.
- You aren’t sure it’s important. Perhaps the completion of this task isn’t important to you right now. Your perspective might have changed in the face of some other more important priorities. If that’s true, take it off your To Do list. If it’s just that you’ve become discouraged over time, get another person to take interest with you. Enlist a friend, a colleague, your boss – some other person who you can verbalize your commitment to. It is harder for us to break our commitments when others know about them. In hearing about your dilemma, your confidant may tell you to give it up. That works too: Sometimes another person’s disinterest is just enough to rekindle your own. At least you have permission to stop trying.
- Fear of failure. Have you ever said you’d do something, and then wondered why you said that? You may not want to start because you are afraid you will fail. Take a first step and see what happens. Don’t think you must have the entire process completely mapped out at the beginning. Just take one step. Allow yourself to remember other times when you felt this uncomfortable. Learning is hard work, and trying something new is part of learning. No matter our experience, our age or our intelligence, we all have something to learn. There is no shame in failing.