Against the odds, and probably against expectations, I do have a masters (or likely a PhD) on procrastination. According to the dictionary, “procrastination is the act of delaying or putting off tasks until the last minute, or post the deadline “. It goes further to say that some researchers define procrastination as a form of “self-regulation failure, characterised by the irrational delay of tasks, despite potentially negative consequences “.
How can I be a procrastinator?
It is hard to believe my productive time-management-focused-self, can procrastinate. What about all my to do lists and goals? Certainly, I am focused on outcomes and working towards results? I am, but the two are not mutually exclusive.
In fact, to-do lists can be excellent forms of procrastination. Mark Manson, whose newsletter got me thinking about this, goes as far as arguing that planning is a seductive form of procrastination, and Girl, am I a planner! When planning, you feel like you’re doing something towards the main goal. When I write down the different steps to achieve a project, I’m not really doing anything to advance it, I am just sorting what I will do. So, it is key that in the moment that I finish planning, I pick a task from the list that I can get on with immediately, so I can stop the procrastination. To get me one step closer, even if small. I must say, however, that planning is not my worst form of procrastination.
Urgent and important
We have all probably heard about the Eisenhower 2 x 2 matrix of the urgent vs. the important. What often happens, especially in jobs like mine, is that there is always a running list of small bits that need to get done. These get in the way of time for focus, important projects. The ratio is often more than 10:1 which means I can tackle the multiple, not always so important tasks and somehow feel like I am advancing. Especially if there is a highlighter involved.
It is often in the presence of a large project or big question that procrastination begins. I’ll give you an example. Recently, I had to prepare a management offsite. We know these are usually heavy on prep, so we started early. I felt I did not have the right angle to approach it, so I went on reading. In fact, reading is an even more seductive way of procrastination than planning. But amidst all the bits I had on my plate, reading also got left behind. After all, I was not getting anywhere with it so it was hard to keep at it. I then went on gathering adjacent data, but still without hitting the main concept. It was not until 10 days before the offsite that my brain got rid of the blockages and I got done in a day what I wanted to have done weeks before.
You may argue this was a better outcome, as at least I did not waste time until I was fully focused. Unfortunately, it does not work quite like that when you are part of a team. It is essential to focus yourself on the most important projects in advance, to give everyone a chance to collaborate.
A deadline is a trigger to action, especially when there are competing priorities. And as I work well under pressure, it does not always bother me. However, the delay can cause high levels of stress, not just for me, but also for those around me. And whilst I am often not good at taking care of myself, I am very focused on taking care of the team. What that means is that I often try to absorb the pressure, working away and not getting help from anyone. It is a loss on both sides – for me, because I don’t get more help, and for my team members, who could participate in the experience of the thought process.
I am not any different in the charity. In fact, I am way worse. Because I don’t have a fixed schedule, I am in doing mode often, generally against the clock. Our annual accounts are the most pressing example, where I always plan to start early and, inevitably, I run until late hours of the night to finish them.
I am getting better at this, and more comfortable with just working openly, not knowing what the final product looks like, sharing screens with a team member as we seek to find solutions. It is always a better outcome.
Procrastination is strongest when a problem is more difficult to tackle, undefined or requires days and days of work. So it is not only about the deadline being far away, but also about the level of complexity. It applies to work or home. For 3 months, I knew I needed to get new health insurance. As the expiry date on my current insurance drew nearer, I just could not get my head around it. It was not about the time, but about the novelty of it. How was I supposed to choose? It had been years since I had changed insurance provider and I definitely had never done it in Portugal. It just felt like too much. I broke out of it eventually by just breaking it down in small tasks (including just printing all the forms) that eventually allowed me to get it done and make a decision. After I had spent 2 months and a half procrastinating and worrying…
Stuff we don’t like
Another great source of procrastination is to have to deal with stuff we don’t like. It sounds contrary to the big important challenges that we often leave behind. But it happens just as much and, with me, even more. One of the reasons the podcast has been dormant the last 2 months is because I hate cold calling. Inviting a new guest for me is a real ordeal. I gather ideas, I do research, and spend time writing thoughtful emails. Sometimes to no response. There is some fear of rejection no doubt, which means I am not great at keeping a stable pipeline. I leave invites to the last minute, then shoot out a couple and, when I get a yes, I don’t keep going, even though I want a steady pre-recorded stream. I find excuses that I don’t have enough women in my network, but deep down, I know cold calling is just hard for me. So I procrastinate.
More common than we think
James Clear (who has real tips on how to stop procrastinating) outlines the Present Self and the Future Self as different entities that are at odds with each other. The Future Self wants to be fit and healthy. The Present Self wants a donut. The Future Self wants to save, the Present Self wants a new bag. We all have our own examples in our lives. Realising the failure that sometimes goal setting can be, when I first started making goals, I was keen to address the wide gap between these 2 personas. After deciding my goal for the year, I then associate actions to it, so I am very clear on the behaviour my Present Self needs to have if the goal is important. Don’t let yourself be carried away by the allure of new year resolutions. That is your Future Self talking. You need to agree (and ideally write down) what your Present Self will do, otherwise, you will just procrastinate.