#372  from Innovative Leader Volume 7, Number 11          November, 1998

The Procrastination Syndrome:  Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment 
by Margaret J. King, Ph.D.

Dr. King is Director, Cultural Studies & Analysis, Philadelphia, PA; phone 215/592-8544.  Dr. King's organization studies culture to identify "cultural imperatives," the software of the mind that drives beliefs and behaviors.

Putting things off is a major stumbling block to achievement, both long-term and in the present.  One of the effects of challenging a specific deadline is the belief that holding off on taking action is an effective or acceptable way to deal with intractable problems.  One of the most difficult challenges managers face is their, and their staff’s, tendency to put off making the tough decisions that allow for action.  This tendency, though very human and very common, leads to unfortunate results: stalled projects, missed opportunities, mismanaged collaboration between departments and colleagues--and, if practiced often enough, the breakdown of missions and morale.

There are some effective approaches to the problem, however, and they are fairly easy to apply--the sooner, the better. As Yogi Berra said, "It's getting late early."

Procrastination comes from Latin, meaning literally "forward to tomorrow." The problem is that unless the task is met with today, "tomorrow" can convert into weeks, even months and years.  Do you see signs of being caught in a procrastination trap?

Diagnosis

You are facing a task such as a report or budget plan, an important application or proposal, a difficult stage of research, asking a colleague for help, analyzing a situation, generating innovative ideas, or making up time on a major project that's already behind schedule.  Suddenly you begin to find many unrelated things that urgently need attention: re-reading old memos, cleaning out drawers, pruning files, calling people you haven't spoken to in months--all as you are waiting for the perfect time to begin the work at hand. 

Most of us recognize that such activities are a stall against work we know needs to be done; but we aren't motivated to either begin or finish. These busy activities are clues that you’re reluctant to get on with the job because of some discomfort with the task.

Prompting action in others who may also be suffering from self-imposed delays may figure in getting closure on your own work.  Doubts about the value of the solution to solve a given problem is a frequent cause of the inability to get mobilized.  But few people apply their analytical abilities to recognize this fact or to address it early in the solution-finding process.

If you'll note what these roadblocks have in common, it's usually a combination of factors: 1) a challenge to your ability or expertise, which 2) imposes an unwelcome demand on your time, abilities, emotional reserves, or resources.  Much of procrastination is a species of protest against these demands and resentment about the fact that forces from the outside have the power to enforce those demands if they aren't met from your own resources.

Putting off tasks is also the logical attempt to delay the inevitable, in the vain hope that somehow what is difficult or awkward now, will prove to be easier later on.  That theory might promise a number of altered conditions: you will be smarter, or have better resources, or have more help, or, the top fantasy, given enough water under the bridge, the effort might prove to be unnecessary after all. (This can happen, but it's not often enough to work as a defense.)

This continued stalling can lead to stress, negative attitude, or an unhealthy emotional attachment to unfinished work. Emotional, mental, and social discomfort come from a sense of inadequacy that says that the assignment is somehow beyond your ability, that the results won't be acceptable, or that the outcome will cause other problems.

This emotional state is one of being overwhelmed instead of feeling on top. Ironically, the impulse to put the task off until later neither solves the problem nor quells the stress produced by worrying about how the work will get done.  This syndrome calls for diagnosis and some executive decision making.

Treatment

Write an outline of the problem.  What is the difficulty?  What is standing in the way of progress?  Read what you have written, then pick out the elements of the problem (guidelines, time, data, format, tie-in with others) and address each one in a solution that covers them all and is also doable within reasonable limits.  Try re-labeling the main headings, devising alternate descriptions of action steps or players, or redefining the problem itself.

Get a piece of the puzzle under control--even five minutes is enough to begin--starting with the hardest task first.  Then the rest of the day will be a reward for a hard job underway or completed, not a countdown to the dreaded necessity.  Even 30 minutes spent on a project each day, or twice a day, can quickly diminish the psychological dimension of the work by making small, but steady, inroads.  It's not so much that you are spending time at the task, but that the problems that need solutions will remain active in your mind, allowing the mental time to work out answers subconsciously until your next appointment with the project. You will find ways to pick up momentum to break the headlock of procrastination.

The idea is just to begin and keep working, even in small increments, coming to terms with the fact that the work needs to be completed and isn't going to go away.  It's surprising how much progress you will see over the days and weeks.  Large blocks of time are so rare for most people that this divide-and-conquer strategy proves far more effective than trying to set up a large dedicated time frame.  Meanwhile you will experience the daily mental satisfaction of knowing you are taking care of the problem.

Work on more pleasant or easier tasks in between.  This sandwich method works well when many other tasks are competing for your attention and threaten to distract you from the project at hand.  Each time you stop working, make a note to yourself of the next step to be taken or continued. Keep these notes on a cover sheet that can serve as a progress log if one is needed over the course of the project or after completion.  This progress sheet will give you a steady springboard of momentum for each of the next action steps.

Then take some time to examine all the steps you’re planning to take.  Are all necessary? Can some be shortcut or cut completely? Are you spending more time on each than you need to?  Assess the energy requirements of the job to see if there’s a more efficient way to satisfy them.  Different tools, even a different team, could be the answer.  Concentrate on the basics, not on a perfect execution.

Some jobs just don't have enough reward in them to justify the effort.  So locate or create a reward to build into the process, even just a well-deserved break between sections or treating yourself to lunch or dinner when the job's done.  Clear your desk of unproductive time-wasters, or work that doesn’t need to be done at all.  Delegate whenever indicated.

Be honest with yourself.  Anything that’s not using your best talents and could be more easily taken care of by another should be reassigned.  Two laws of good management pertain here: assign the best person to the job and recognize that all achievements are outcomes of time awareness.

These techniques offer ways to break through the procrastination barrier to solve the task in new or better ways.  Rethink old or continuing challenges in these terms: how can I do this job more efficiently by spending less time, or using a different set of skills, or asking for expert assistance?

By redefining or reframing the problem?  Consider the difference between these two questions: "How can I accomplish Project X?" and "How can Project X be accomplished?"

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