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Procrastination Prevents Progress – 5 Productivity pitfalls and how to avoid them

There’s an old saying in my day job (as an IT project manager since you ask):

“Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance”

You may have heard versions of it before. The beauty of the “5 P’s” is that it conveys a simple message with some pleasing alliteration along the way. In essence, it’s possible to avoid poor performance of any task or activity by ensuring enough thought is put into the preparation (see also planning and prioritisation as valid substitutes).

What strikes me increasingly these days, both at work and at home as a parent is that we would all do well to not only embrace this saying to accentuate the positive and productive activities in our lives but also to eradicate the negatives; the delaying tactics, the resistances that we put up that at times hinder us in achieving even the most insignificant things. I’m proposing an alternative version:

“Procrastination Prevents Progress”

Perhaps it’s not as catchy but it’s equally applicable in my opinion. Planning or preparing for an activity isn’t the be-all and end-all but you’ve got to at least get on and do something in the first instance if you want to move forward with anything, right?

It seems these days that we are all too keen to procrastinate, over-evaluate, consider and re-consider something before we get on and do it. Sometimes it’s simply too easy to get distracted rather than just getting on with the task at hand. Maybe that’s a result of there being too many distractions open to us in this world of instant information, rapid gratification and fear that we might be missing out on something else if we commit our attentions to one task. Maybe we are genuinely fearful of the job on the list. The reality though is there really is no way we can achieve things without the simple act of getting organised, grabbing the metaphorical bull by the horns and getting on with it.

Below I have outlined 5 typical examples of procrastination and delaying tactics that I see time and again at work and at home, many of which I’m guilty of myself. For each of these I’ve also outlined a means of handling them, whether that’s Father to Child, Boss to Employee, Wife to Husband or from self to self; sometimes you just need to have a word with yourself, right?

My philosophy is that it’s never enough just to acknowledge and lament a problem if you’re not willing to do something to try and resolve it, so here we go!

1) Doing what we want to do rather than what we have to do – The best example of this is the age-old debate we parents have with our kids: homework versus TV. The source of the distraction is inconsequential but the substance of the argument remains. We have to accept that life for most of us is a process of having to do the things expected of us first before we indulge ourselves in the things we’d like to do. We have to go to work in the morning to earn a living before we can come home and enjoy our family-time and pursue our hobbies. Whilst at work we can get on and tackle the tasks we know are going to be time-consuming, complex and potentially unpleasant and leave the routine and administrative matters for later in the day or flip the scheduling of these around. The beauty of the former is that we get the tough stuff done while our energy levels are still high. Adopting the same model at home we can encourage our kids to get the homework done before the weekend so they are able to relax and enjoy their free time or it can be left hanging over them until the last possible minute when the only option is a rushed or half-hearted effort done reluctantly that won’t give the best results.

The choice is really all ours, and the suggested remediation is to force a value-judgment that encourages the choice to be made considering the balance of life, and not just defaulting to the path of least resistance to instant gratification.

2) Putting off the tricky tasks until last – There are theories abound of task-list management and how we should prioritise things. It’s often tempting to put off the tricky, unpalatable tasks or those we simply don’t feel like doing until later either in favour of doing the easy ‘quick-wins’ or simply doing nothing at all. The danger with this is two-fold. First, we risk convincing ourselves that we’re being productive or genuinely achieving things by knocking off the little tasks, and further justifying our procrastination over the big stuff. Second, we avoid reality that more significant and difficult tasks are likely to be of higher value and make a greater impact to our lives and hence warrant their status and significance on our task list.

The knack here is to ensure that the task list is only made up of genuinely important things that are aligned to our higher values (whether these are truly linked to delivering the benefits of a project at work, or to achieving our target grades at school). We also need to be clear on what is required of us so that we can then tackle the tasks to completion, tick them off the list and forget about them. I suggest you get ruthless, trim your list down to the truly significant activities rather than padding it with things that you know you can start ticking them off quickly; the progress might be slower on a task-by-task basis but the effects will be profound in your life as each task provides genuine value once complete. Cut out the ‘busy-work’.

3) Allowing ourselves to be distracted (usually by our smartphones) – When we are able to gain real-time insight into goings-on around us whether the Instagram photos of a friend’s dinner plate, or a breaking news article about the latest celebrity divorce, we invite distraction and procrastination into our lives. We convince ourselves that the risk of somehow being out of touch with the outside world outweighs the risk of not doing what we have to in a timely and efficient way. In most cases it’s actually just a means of convincing ourselves we have a valid reason to stay in touch with the world around us, or just an outright excuse. In the days before computers landed on most office desks I presume that distraction came in the form of conversations and visitors to your desk side or the ringing of the telephone. When computers were solely interfaces to operational systems it was likely that the situation remained largely the same. However, once email and Internet access proliferated a world of information and further distraction and interruption opened up to us. Now, in the age of the smartphone we have every bit of information in the world and live communication channels with our nearest and dearest open to us at all times of the day and night. These are truly times of unprecedented change and with two iPhone-toting teenage daughters whose embracing of social media has been committed and wholehearted I can see that the lasting effects of this change will be significant to their development and to that of the world at large.

It is certainly not just kids who’ve allowed this source of distraction into their lives and I can bear witness to many a Chief Financial Officer or Managing Director of large, publically quoted companies who I’ve observed sneaking a cursory look at Facebook or Twitter in the midst of significant meetings and discussions. It may have followed a check of their mobile work email app when their attention has wandered from the conversation at hand, but it is undeniable that the smartphone and the information it gives us access to is here to stay as the distracting force of our time.

The only advice I can offer in this regard is to be mindful of your use, be honest about how much you allow yourself to be distracted and stop kidding yourself that Twitter is any kind of essential business aid. Put the phone down and get on with the job at hand. Lead your kids by example, don’t lecture them in misty-eyed fashion over a simpler time then go back to looking at memes on Facebook.

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4) Fear of missing out on something better – A by-product of the smartphone-enhanced world and the social networks within it is that we are constantly tormented with updates on the activities and lives of others. These are of course always 10% more exciting, stimulating or fun than ours; their holidays are to more exotic locations, they are doing more exciting things than us with friends whose company we want to be enjoying, and they are getting more out of life while we are sat here trying to complete an overdue report or defrost the freezer.

The nature of social media, online dating and any other kind of site that exists to connect people, is that users engage others in the ‘good stuff’ that’s going on in their lives and open up jealousy and fear of missing out in those who engage with them. In online dating, the availability of what is essentially a catalogue of sexy people who are all out to advertise themselves and attract a mate, convinces the single person that there is a wealth of potential matches out there and their task it is to weed out the best that they can; is it any wonder that people are becoming more likely to remain single in life as they fail to commit, believing that the best-of-the-best is just around the corner? Again the most effective course of action to counter this is to cut yourself off from the source of torment, or more realistically to know that you are probably as culpable as anyone else of participating in this same process. Pacify yourself that everyone else has to allocate time to the things they must do, as well as that they want to. Take satisfaction that once you’ve got your value-adding tasks done, you can share pictures of you cat/child/dinner/car with impunity, or swipe-left on a few potential dates.

5) Questioning the inherent value in a task (or asking ourselves “What’s the point?”) – There’s a rather corrosive belief held by many people, that these days every task, activity or moment in our lives should be endowed with significance or meaning. If the task is not instantly gratifying, then somehow it’s not worthy of us? This is the biggie and one that I’ll write on separately at some point soon. The significance here though is in the emerging sense of entitlement that seems to be factored into virtually every person’s mind these days regarding one or more aspects of their life, which underpins procrastination when we view tasks as beneath us, menial or just plain boring.

We all believe we inherently deserve the best, whether that’s the best-paid, most interesting job, the finest food and wines known to man, or the dream holiday to the far-flung destinations (whether we can afford them or not). I’m not disputing our right to strive for excellence, but I’m offended by the notion that it should come with zero effort or commitment on our part.

In work, employees baulk, complain and even strike at the notion of basically having to do their jobs if they disagree with the terms, conditions or even just the nature of the work. The UK public sector particularly is rife with people who pale at the thought that they may have to do more than the bare-minimum 35 hours per week and who know that with zero visible symptoms they can receive long-term sick pay for staying home and watching TV. I say this flippantly but also with experience, having worked for 4 long years in local government; it’s part of the reason I now work freelance in financial services; mercenary, certainly but I know where I am when most people are employed under the same terms and operate under the assumption if they don’t deliver they will be replaced following 2 weeks notice. Maybe this is the repressed Victorian Mill Owner in me, coming out in my views on employee-relations.

In our private lives, everyone can now access every material possession they wish (within reason); luxury cars can be leased for no money down, Satellite TV is considered a necessity alongside sanitation and electricity and you’re considered a luddite if your iPhone is more than one version older than the most recent model.

We are all products of the world in which we live and I’m not crusading for fundamental changes in the way we all engage with modern society and the trappings of it. What I advocate though is that we all need to complete activities (“work” in shorthand) that generally contributes to achieving things in life, both to earn a living and be a contributing member of society. Not everything is endowed with a higher purpose or value; we all need to roll up our sleeves and clean a toilet now and again and to view such things as beneath us or believe that we have some underlying reason to put off a task as not worthy of us is, frankly, laughable. I use extreme examples here but the simple message is if you’re questioning a task as warranting your attention, if it needs doing, for goodness sake just crack-on and get it done.

Hopefully you’ll find something that you can apply in the above. It seems obvious to say that the basic lesson of the piece is ‘Don’t Procrastinate’, but that is the fundamental point.

In keeping with point 5 above, sometimes we need a bit of tough love. We may spend our time and mind-space trying to concoct reasons why we want to avoid a task, or delay it until later. The simple fact is that assuming you are required to do something either because it is expected of you in work, or you’ve added it to your personal task list as it presumably aligns with your higher value goals, then by definition you are going to have to do it at some point to achieve your personal goals (to keep your job or achieve the beneficial value in these examples).

The more you put it off, the harder it will be to tackle. Stop considering there is a good reason for delaying tactics, put aside the sources of distraction and get it done.

Then revel in the glory, smug self-satisfaction and tell your friends about it on Facebook.

Toby

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A writer, dad and husband sharing his thoughts, wins and losses to help and inspire others. Say hello at bit.ly/TobyHazlewood

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