Leader Volume 7, Number 11
Procrastination Syndrome: Signs,
Symptoms, and Treatment
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.
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."
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?
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.
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
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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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