There may be a few perfect employees out there who have never once dragged their heels on a task…but I doubt it. While procrastination is nothing to brag about, we all do it—some more than others.
Sometimes procrastination seems reasonable: when work is scarce and efficiency will put us out of a job; when we fear a backlash for being too efficient later on; or when our personal circumstances force us to cut back to a more realistic workload.
Sometimes, though, the self-imposed anchor of procrastination stems from more unworthy factors. We may hate a task, find it difficult, or simply want to duck the responsibility. Other factors holding us back can include:
• Lack of self-confidence
• Excessive time pressure
• High frustration levels
• Negative self-talk
Notice I don’t include “Laziness” in the above list. While “Motivational Deficit Disorder” does sometimes contribute to procrastination, I’ve found successful, hard-working people to be among the worst procrastinators. They are so busy being busy—working on their day-to-day operational tasks—they “have no time” to focus on strategic priorities.
Regardless of the cause, however, procrastination always generates anxiety in the long run, creating a negative, paralyzing feedback loop. Rather than wasting time twiddling your thumbs or staying busy to hide your lack of productivity, take these steps to banish procrastination from your work life altogether.
Control Your Fear
Fear serves a legitimate purpose to protect us; however, when you find a task unpleasant or difficult, you can’t let it stop you in your tracks like a mountain lion would. In many jobs, you’d never get anything done if that were the case. Imagine working as a homicide detective or a zookeeper for carnivores—there are some jobs that are truly scary! But most fear is irrational: fear of failure, fear of running out of work, or fear of social disapproval. These fears shouldn’t prevent you from pushing forward with a task. Indeed, some people have observed that nearly cause of procrastination boils down to one fear or another when you get right down to it. Perhaps the task itself may seem huge and fearsome. Fortunately, you are the master of your emotions, and no one or nothing can make you feel any certain way. It’s up to you to conquer your fear, whatever form it takes, so you can forge ahead successfully. How can you do that?
Visualize the outcomes. On one hand, you have positive reinforcement, which helps you succeed by emphasizing all the positive outcomes of taking on and accomplishing your task; on the other, you have negative reinforcement, which dwells on the depressing consequences if you don’t. I prefer the former, but if the latter spurs you on, then by all means go for it. Do you want to lose your job, lose your house, and be a bag lady living under a bridge?
Focus on the positive. As for positive reinforcement, think about how great it’ll feel to finally conquer the hurdle blocking your path. Not only will you not have to worry about it anymore, now you can spend that worry-time on something productive. Maybe you’ll even get a promotion for accomplishing your task when no one else could! It doesn’t hurt to be a little lavish in your visualization if it helps you “screw your courage to the sticking point,” as Horatio Alger used to put it. Bad things just fester when you ignore them. Most of the time, a yucky task don’t just go away. It won’t do itself, and you can’t assume someone will do it for you. Get moving, or the anxiety will keep eating at you, devouring your energy and time.
Strategize. Take a little time to lay out a plan for getting the task done. You may find it easier to break it into smaller subtasks, each with its own due date and milestones. You can add each subtask to your to-do list and keep chipping away at it until you’ve completed it all. Think of building a wall, with each brick as a subtask. It may take a while, but you’ll eventually finish the wall if you keep at it.
Eliminate distractions. We clever humans have a tendency to let our labor-saving devices take over our lives. They are like appendages—with us wherever we go. We have an obsessive curiosity about what’s happening “out there.” In addition to all this, you have to deal with other people bugging you, as well as their technology breaking your concentration. Slip that electronic leash and block out the distractions. Turn everything off. Close your door or go somewhere quiet to hide if you absolutely must focus on a task.
Get Busy. Motion beats meditation. Once you’ve collected the facts and resources you need to do the job, take the bit between your teeth and run. Even if you only make it a short distance the first time, every time you work on the task you’ll cut down on the space between here and there—and those efforts will add up. Set a timer for 15 minutes. Tell yourself you WILL focus until the buzzer goes off and do not click off your screen. Stretch the time periods 5 minutes at a time, until you can focus for 45 minutes. You’ll discover nothing blew up while you were actually getting work done.
Although we tend to make a big deal about talent, what really matters—in work as in the rest of life—is tenacity, the old stick-to-it attitude that pushes you through to completion. Talent without action is worthless. In many cases, action alone can result in great success, as long as you pair it with basic competence. So stop thinking about that task and just get to work.
Every job includes some disagreeable chores, so even if you can’t stand what you’re doing at the moment, find a way to tolerate it. As the old song goes, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” At the very least, getting an unloved task done will put you closer to being “with the one you love.”
A Little Creative Avoidance
You may discover that no matter how you try, completing your top priorities just isn’t in the stars. Rather than give up and go play Words with Friends, divert yourself into creative avoidance—i.e., work on smaller tasks that still have some value, even as you duck the big task. Here are some suggestions:
1. Go through your master task list and delete things you’ll never do.
2. Clean up your computer hard drive and desktop, deleting and organizing files.
3. Look at next month’s calendar and think about what’s coming up and what preparation is required.
4. Clean up the paper piles on your desk and clear your filing pile.
5. Restock your office supplies and straighten your surroundings.
6. Catch up with industry reading.
7. Check in with team members and get the status on delegated items.
8. Water your plants.
You get the idea. I’m not a fan of procrastination, but at least creative avoidance accomplishes something. Sometimes all you need is momentum. Once you’ve boosted your confidence by crossing a few items off your list, you’ll probably find it easier to reel in that anchor, latch onto one of your bigger jobs, and start making progress. Low value tasks may not matter much in the long run, but at least they can help you prime the pump for your real work.
Where Angels Fear to Tread
Now that you’re revved up and ready to go, a word of caution: don’t leap into the fray without considering all the consequences. You’ll still need to think about your Next Big Thing long enough to cover every angle and make sure you have everything you need. But once you do, don’t hesitate.
We can examine the reasons for procrastination from this side of eternity to the other, and in the end, it doesn’t matter whether the reasons we come up with are legitimate or just excuses. Either way, you’ve hurt your productivity for no good reason. Ultimately, you just have to force yourself to get to work. Face down your subconscious and stop sabotaging yourself. In the classic words of Larry the Cable Guy, just “get ‘er done.” Then eat a piece of dark chocolate to reward yourself.