This week is National Procrastination Week. What a great topic to shine the spotlight on. So many of us struggle with procrastination. This decreases our productivity and cranks up our anxiety. I refer to procrastination as the thief of time, because it is stealing our time from other high-value activities. Simply having greater self-awareness around our tendency to procrastinate can begin to stop the productivity drain. Coupling this self-awareness with some proven tactics, we can overcome the delays and distractions and effectively set ourselves in motion. The tendency to procrastinate is common, but it is quite manageable. You can tackle procrastination head-on. So, let’s get on with it.
The Neuroscience on Procrastination
Being mindful of the trap of procrastination is your first step to solving this productivity puzzle. Research in neuroscience helps us shed a light on what is going on in the brain when we procrastinate. We are actually wired for procrastination. We have our limbic system – which is our pleasure center – competing with our more-evolved prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for our planning and decision-making. The prefrontal cortex is what distinguishes us from animals and has allowed us to continue to evolve, but it can, and often is, overrun by the limbic system. The limbic system will choose pleasure over pain, disregarding the prefrontal cortex’s logic for completing a task at hand that really will bring greater rewards in the long run. Here you can find more on the science; but, the point I’m making is that being aware and mindful of our hardwiring for procrastination sets the stage for breaking the cycle. Then what? Let’s consider what is going on in our thoughts (mindfulness) as we work towards our solutions.
The Procrastination Solutions
A common misconception is that people who procrastinate lack motivation. This is not the case. I want to pull apart two of the more common reasons the procrastination parts of our brains light up: the feelings of perfectionism and a sense of overwhelm. We may put something off because we’re struggling with perfectionism, and sometimes this may even be on a subconscious level. We may be thinking, “this task is complicated and I want to do it perfectly, so I don’t even want to try.” This is a classic fear of failure, or even simply fear of not doing something well. The second common reason we procrastinate, which can be intertwined with the perfectionism, is because we become overwhelmed, perceiving a task to be too large or complicated. We may then consciously, or again even subconsciously, work to avoid the task. So, how do we overcome these obstacles to move forward?
I know we can all think of situations where “good” will work as well as “perfect.” Maybe it’s when drafting a summary? Or cleaning the house? How about hiring a job candidate? Or setting up a new workflow process? To overcome the burden of perfectionism, you need to ask yourself Is there room for tweaking after the fact? And though there are times when the stakes are high and we need to work with the highest measure of standards, you can define your own measure of “perfect.” In other words, you decide the level and measures of performance.
In everything we do, there are at least 3 measures of performance: minimum, moderate and maximum. For example, when hiring a new candidate, your minimum level of performance would be to post the job description on your website and interview 1-2 candidates. A moderate level of performance would be to post the position in multiple places, prescreen several candidates with phone interviews and schedule them for in-person, interviews. The maximum level of performance would be to include phone screening, scheduling the top 3 for multiple in-person interviews, and asking candidates to take personality or skills assessments. The maximum level of performance is a much larger project and will take much longer to complete. However, a moderate level of performance could render a similar result in less time. Part of the mindfulness of perfectionism is analyzing a situation and determining whether or not perfect should be the goalpost. Especially if perfect is turning out to be a full-on block to finishing the task or project.
Break it Down Into Manageable Parts
Perhaps you’ve heard this one asked before: Q. How do you eat an elephant? A. One bite at a time. When you break down a project into manageable parts, the sum of the parts becomes the completed project. Maybe it is writing the first paragraph of a paper, whether it’s the opening, or just doing an outline to help you get started. Or, maybe it is setting a goal of writing 100 words a day to get started on the book you’ve been wanting to write. It could be a large cleaning project that you tackle one shelf, one closet or one drawer at a time, day-by-day. Perhaps you have the goal of drafting an operations manual for the business. Start by scheduling a meeting with the stakeholders and assigning topics by functional area. Delegation is an excellent way to break down a large project. Spread out the responsibility of the task or project, after thoughtful reflection on skillsets, bandwidth and participant access to the necessary tools.
Another great way to break down a task or project is to use time blocking, an effective time management technique. Set aside manageable amounts of time to work on the project, and chip away one block at a time. It will be easier to tie any loose pieces together once you have something of the concept in place. Breaking up the task helps keep anxiety in check. Acknowledge upfront that you have set aside the time to work on the task. Be mindful of stopping when the time is up. Trust the process and keep plodding along. A pretty cool thing begins to happen. You start to see your momentum and it will push you forward in the form of more motivation.
Dealing With Procrastination Among Employees and Partners
Procrastination on your team or by a coworker can actually be a tell-tale sign of needed action on your part. Do the team members have access to the necessary information to complete the task? Is an imposed deadline unrealistic? Are there parts of the project that can be spread out among other functional areas? Is the desired goal of the project clear? View the procrastination as a warning flag something could be amiss and see it as your cue to investigate. Take the time to dig in and study the ins and outs and make changes accordingly.
Just Do It – Get Started
Where in your life today are you stalling, putting off a project or other responsibility? Are you suffering from a sense of perfectionism – allowing fear of “not good enough” to keep you from starting? Does the task seem overwhelming? Can you break down the activity into smaller tasks and/or delegate? Even if you are someone prone to procrastination, you can put measures in place to overcome it. You owe it to yourself. Procrastination causes unnecessary stress. And, this stress, coupled with the delays, is impacting your overall productivity. To celebrate National Procrastination Week, I encourage you to tackle procrastination head-on. Getting started is worth it.
Sara Genrich is a Productivity Consultant, an Evernote Certified Consultant and the creator of the Organizing@Work for Success Workshop. She’s committed to providing real-life solutions so her clients have time to focus on the things that really matter.