Until this week, the best thing I’d read about procrastination was “The Procrastination Equation” by Piers Steel. It’s evidence-based, and pretty good about the “How To” in overcoming procrastination. The best thing about it, is that it’s not preachy. If you check out any articles on the internet, most of them will tell you that you procrastinate because you’re lazy, and if you just got off your arse, well, that will fix your procrastinating. The protestant work ethic frowns deeply at procrastinators. There’s a special circle of Hell reserved for us, where we’re always waiting for the right moment, but it never comes.
This week I read this article, though (by Eric Jaffe). I thought it really got to the heart of procrastination, and didn’t need 215 pages plus notes to get there. There are some top quotes in there:
“It really has nothing to do with time management. To tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
“The chronic procrastinator, the person who does this as a lifestyle, would rather have other people think that they lack effort, rather than ability”
“…procrastinators comfort themselves in the present with the false belief that they’ll be more emotionally equipped to handle a task in the future. The future self becomes the beast of burden for procrastination”
These all resonated with me, particularly that last one about the future self. Honestly, when I get hold of that future self guy, I’m going to tell him what I think about him.
When I coach people who procrastinate, the first thing I do is to find a link to their deeper values and re-frame it so that it becomes important at a personal level. Very often, people will baulk at doing something that is on their To Do List, put there by someone else. So really, they have an Ought To Do List. Words like “Should”, “Ought” and “Must” are modal verbs, often issued from a disembodied voice, nagging us to do something. We meet this voice with resistance, passive aggression and failure to act.
Many team leaders and bosses will have encountered this at work. Subordinates just won’t do what they’re asked to do, and there doesn’t seem to be a good reason. I think it’s because the task you’ve given them has no worth, to them. It doesn’t line up with their values, and until it does, it gets shoved down the list. So you have a choice, you can show them a carrot, or a stick, tell them to JFDI, or find out what really motivates them, and connect the task to that. In short it’s a problem of motivation, rather than time management. Or if you can’t be bothered with that, give it to someone who gives a damn.
One other thing. That shadowy figure of authority, can be anyone, though. If you’ve ever had “Tidy Bedroom”or “Clean Fridge” on your To Do List for more than a month, it’s probably an “Ought to Do” coming from a parent, echoing back through the years, not you!
So you’re there, waiting for the right moment, like you’re in a Samuel Beckett play. Inspiration will visit you, one day. Until it does, find something worthwhile in the task, take a small step in that direction, get some momentum, and keep going.