End Procrastination for Good

Have you ever put off a task by doing something else instead?  Instead of washing the car, you thoroughly reorganized your garage.  

Obviously, you like clean, organized things. You’re not afraid of the act of cleaning.  Otherwise, neither the car nor the garage would have been given any attention, or even intention. So, what gives? When WILL the car get washed?

As business owners, most of us know all too well, the issue of too many hats to wear, interruptions, diversions, and dilution. What is the difference between some of these things and procrastination?  

Procrastination as an Art Form

To be fair, we can blame the speed at which things-to-do are coming at us.  We can blame other staff for dropping balls (or procrastinating).  We can attach a trophy to our endless pile of unfinished work by noting how important we are and that, “I am the only one with the talent to do this (or that).” There is an art form (and lots of practicing artists) in justifying why so many things don’t ever get started or done…. And usually, we don’t see ourselves in the picture… It’s somebody else’s (or the entire world’s) fault or because we are so smart. Therefore, the task can’t be delegated.

Self Harm

The word procrastination is derived from, among others, the Greek word akrasia, which means doing something against one’s better judgement.  I think we’d all agree that procrastination isn’t a talent any of us brag about. A University of Calgary motivational psychologist, Dr. Piers Steel says, “It’s self-harm.”  That’s harsh, but logical. We all have to look inward on some of the things we have done, or do on a regular basis, if we want to change (or if we need a little self-deprecating humor to get us through the day).  

More for Your To-Do List

Can you make a list of things that have been on a list for three months?  How ‘bout six months?  A year? More?!? These call for a “C’mon man!” moment.

Following Dr. Piers’ definition of self-harm, we have to ask ourselves: If we have the ability to do something for ourselves, then why wouldn’t we?  Why do we procrastinate? There is no good answer to these questions.  A quick search on Google will bring you to this explanation:

People often procrastinate because they’re afraid of failing at the tasks that they need to complete. This fear of failure can promote procrastination in various ways, such as by causing people to avoid finishing a task, or by causing them to avoid getting started on a task in the first place.

I might have procrastinated the start of writing this article, but I don’t want to make this about me.  It’s all about helping the readers of C & R magazine.  See?  I am side-stepping my procrastination like a champ! We all do it!

It’s Not About Laziness

Few that study procrastination see it as laziness. But let’s not soak in this good news. Before you accuse me of sugar-coating the subject, let me jump in deeper and see if I can get unfriended by anyone. Let’s dig into what other psychologists have to say about procrastination.  Another Canadian psychology pair, professor Dr. Tim Pychyl and Dr. Fuschia Sirois, connects procrastination simply to mood control. 

In a 2013 study, Dr. Pychyl and Dr. Sirois found that procrastination can be understood as “the primacy of short-term mood repair … over the longer-term pursuit of intended actions.” Put simply, procrastination is about being more focused on “the immediate urgency of managing negative moods” than getting on with the task, Dr. Sirois said.

In short, they found that procrastination can stem from the perceived challenges of an upcoming task (and the implied responsibility to complete it well).  We avoid certain tasks because we inherently dislike the task or the type of task (such as washing the car) and/or to avoid the expected/feared feelings of self-doubt, lack of confidence or even deeper issues such as self-esteem that we associate with the task. 

Time to Take Control

We know life is short. I think we agree on this. We all have things on our lists that we keep pushing back, pushing aside, or delaying completion. We know we want to provide for ourselves, our employees, and our families.  STILL, we treat these bigger, long-term, potentially life-changing wishes with delay.  We protect ourselves from negative moods in the immediate term by avoiding tasks that spark emotional issues (real or perceived) that we predict will accompany the task. This is real. This failure to seek life-changing benefits in trade for immediate, temporary mood control is the enemy at hand.  This is the part that I see as a CALL TO ACTION to find a way to end our procrastination.

At the risk of being very unpopular here, a mentor of mine many years ago explained to me that any avoidance of written goals or act of procrastination is actually a fear of SUCCESS – NOT A FEAR OF FAILURE. After all, if I’m not doing the things that will make me successful, I am obviously PERFECTLY FINE WITH FAILURE. Harsh, but the logic can’t be denied.

What Can We Do to Win?

How do we stop saying “I’m gonna do that?”   The first step is to consider new ways to look at our behaviors. Like any habit, we must acknowledge that we aren’t getting anywhere by “talking” about things.  Sooner or later, ACTION must ensue.  As a start, can we make a list of 5 things we would like to see done ONCE AND FOR ALL?  Include some small things, and if we are not afraid of success, let’s include some BIG THINGS on the list.  This will be the first step in changing the neurological pattern behavior (habits) we have.

Let’s look back at the car washing example in the opening paragraph (didn’t wash the car but instead, reorganized the garage).  Taking the ‘short-term discomfort vs desired benefit’ approach that many psychologists agree with, our garage reorganizer might simply not like to get wet. He/she might LOVE a clean car but avoids the risk of getting wet. Not a big deal, so we won’t order the straight jacket, hold an intervention, nor commit anyone to the funny farm just yet. A clean car is nice but won’t result in any life-changing benefits.  But if we exchange ‘car washing’ for ‘writing a solid business plan,’ we can see the difference and importance of the benefits.

Is There a Cure?

Yes.  There is rehab, but they’re not ready to accept patients yet. (Cue procrastination laughter). It is absolutely worthwhile to get better at tackling not-so-fun tasks.  The long-term damage to our confidence, self esteem and general happiness can be unhealthy in mental and physical ways.  It’s no fun to be disappointed in ourselves.  Ultimately, when it comes to procrastination, none of us are proud of it.  Continued procrastination of larger, long-term projects can lower a person’s self-expectations and bring them to settle for less as a way of life (and somehow justify it).

Start Somewhere, Start Now

Make a list of smaller projects you’ve left undone.  Focus on the happiness you’ll get when they are done.  Put some time in your time plan to pay attention ONLY to the things on the procrastination list.  If it isn’t visible, you can’t manage it. So, make your list visible. 

The bigger tasks?  Some of them will require major lifestyle changes.  I’ve known people to move into a much more affordable house and sell everything that isn’t bolted down; all in order to go back to college (for a degree this time).  I’ve seen the same change occur when a person goes into business for themselves.  At the end of the day, you are the referee of your productivity.  You can bring the change necessary to tackle the little things and the big ones.   

Brian Clark

“Brian Clark is COO  of Service Team of Professionals (STOP), a unique franchise in water, restoration, and biohazard.  STOP emerged from within the restoration industry as a business consulting firm known for building companies through in-depth interaction.  Clark is a seasoned consultant, business coach, and speaker. You can reach Brian at brian@stoprestoration.com.

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