Don't Procrastinate. Read This Now!

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek September 6, 2019
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​We've all done it: put off that task we really don't want to tackle. It's easy to find something else to do instead—check e-mail, watch a funny cat video, read this article. Anything, as long as it doesn't entail doing whatever you're procrastinating about.

"Procrastinators can keep admirably busy even while they're avoiding their work," wrote Andrew Santella in his book Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me (HarperCollins, 2018). "When it is most crucial that I get something done, I become heroically determined to do just about anything but that thing."

A lack of self-control is a big factor, said Jeff Kreisler, editor-in-chief of PeopleScience.com, a platform for behavioral science discussions.

"Everybody knows we should wake up and exercise, but we [often] don't have the self-control to get going," he said, citing one example. "The future doesn't motivate as much as the present." 

As for telling yourself you work best under deadline pressure, "we all overestimate our abilities," he said. And you may encounter unforeseen obstacles, like illness or a computer malfunction, that prevent you from meeting the deadline. 

It's all about finding "a low-threshold entry point to action," professor Timothy A. Pychyl said in a Psychology Today blog post. He is the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle: A Concise Guide to Strategies for Positive Change (Tarcher/Penguin, 2013) and director of the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.

"It's just a simple action that gets you started." 

Procrastination can lead to a major disservice to customers, Caleb Backe pointed out. He's a certified life coach and a business consultant at Maple Holistics, a cosmetics company in the greater New York City area.

"Also, if you work as part of a team, not completing your work on time can have a ripple effect on everyone else's output. If you become known as a procrastinator, your supervisors will know that they can't rely on you. It may even get to the point where they are nervous to give you a project and consider firing you instead."

So for today, Fight Procrastination Day, SHRM Online has collected the following techniques some people use to overcome the oh-so-easy tendency to put off until tomorrow what you should do today.

A Few Tricks up the Sleeve 

Steve Kurniawan, chief operating officer who supervises the HR department of Allin Group in Indonesia, says he often puts off a task until the deadline becomes imminent. The result: The project's quality suffers because he rushes to complete it. To avoid this, he breaks a project down into smaller milestones with closer deadlines. 

"A sense of urgency," he said, "will help a lot with productivity."

Sifting through job applications is one of Crystal McFerran's least favorite tasks. It takes a lot of time—90 percent of candidates lack relevant skills, background or experience; 5 percent are overqualified; and 4 percent are underqualified. That leaves only 1 percent, she said, who are viable applicants. 

The senior vice president of marketing for The 20, a business development group in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, blocks off time once or twice a week to pore through applications. If she didn't reserve that time, she knows she could lose out on a great candidate. 

Jake Penney, head of HR for English Blinds in Solihull, West Midlands, England, knows that he puts things off when he's unsure how to proceed. To get around this, he breaks the task down and develops a plan on how and when to deal with each part of it.

"If I find that the issue is missing information, or something I don't know or fully understand, I can then get started by finding out what I need to know or talking to the appropriate persons."  

Smaller, monotonous tasks are a stumbling block for some people. 

"[They] look like a lot on paper, despite not taking an extraordinary amount of time or brainpower to complete," said Jason Yau, vice president of e-commerce and general manager for CanvasPeople. The company, in Lynbrook, N.Y., produces photo-canvas prints.

Yau uses a personal rewards system—taking a walk, eating a healthy snack or doing a more enjoyable task—as an incentive. 

"So long as I have something different to look forward to, I usually can muster up enough energy and motivation to push through those particularly monotonous tasks."

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement]

The HR executives at Fortune 500 companies that Growth Engine Innovation Agency works with tend to put off preparing presentations, reports and annual plans, said Bryan Mattimore, co-founder and chief idea guy at the agency. Mind mapping helps them get going, he said.

The technique, created by the late Tony Buzan, uses key words, diagramming, symbols and colors to identify the facts of a problem and then combines them with the person's ideas and insight to think visually, Mattimore explained. 

"Once the HR executives have completed their content mind map," he said, "they realize the writing task they were procrastinating on was not so difficult after all and invariably go on to write it right away."

A stopwatch-like approach works for Marsha Kelly, who puts off writing for her blog. 

"I have an intimate relationship with procrastination," said the president of marketing consultancy Best 4 Businesses in Peconic, N.Y. "My lack of confidence in my writing, plus the dreaded drain of brain energy required, [meant I] always pushed it off to the side."

Kelly deafens the siren sound of procrastination with her tomato-shaped timer. The trick, she found, is to limit the time devoted to the offending task. 

"Anything, no matter how tedious or difficult, can be endured for under one minute," she observed. Inevitably, you will find that once you have begun, your momentum will keep you going for at least 30 more seconds. 

This can backfire if you always push yourself beyond that time frame, she warned.

"Your inner procrastinator will rebel and stop working entirely. Mine did. [It's] OK to stop after 30 seconds and move on to another activity for a while—or for the day."

So enjoy Fight Procrastination Day … if you get around to observing it, even for 30 seconds.


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