#577  Innovative Leader                 Volume 12, Number 5          May 2003

A Company’s Number One Killer:  Procrastination
by Donald L. Caruth, Ph. D. and Gail D. Handlogten-Caruth

Dr. Caruth and Ms. Handlogten-Caruth are human resource management consultants  in Rockwell, Texas (email caruth@flash.net).  They are authors of Managing Compensation (and Understanding, Too) (Quorum Books, Westport, CT, 2001).

Contrary to popular belief it is not poor judgment, or lack of resources that is the main killer of businesses. The leading business killer is procrastination. Putting off until tomorrow, next week, next month, or next year has killed more ideas, innovations, improvements, and human initiative than all other faults combined. Procrastination is a chronic malady that lingers on and on. It drains individuals of vitality, robs organizations of opportunities, strips people of income, and causes the premature death of careers. It is the destroyer of positive ideas that could become realities, but remain forever fiction because of inaction. The insidious methodology of procrastination is death through delay.

But fortunately, procrastination is a disease that can be treated very successfully. It responds well to treatment and the cure rate is high for those who follow the prescribed regimen. The treatment for this malady consists of two parts. The first requires merely that you understand the causes of procrastination so that you can detect the presence of this potentially dangerous condition in yourself. (And if you are able to catch it in its incipiency, so much the better). The second part of the treatment requires some simple actions to eradicate the procrastination disease and prevent its recurrence.

Why Do We Procrastinate?

Why do we fall victim to this disease? Why do we tend to procrastinate so often? Why do we frequently put off until later--to the very last possible moment, usually--the things that should really be done now? There are seven major causes of procrastination. (Actually, excuses is a better term than causes.) Recognizing them is the first step in dealing with the problem.

Cause #1:  Fear of Success. Success carries with it the responsibility to continue to be successful. For some of us this price is much too high to pay. Consequently, the more we procrastinate, the less our chances for success and the more remote the possibility that we will have to face the awesome responsibility of being successful. In this context, procrastination becomes a way of avoiding any personal accountability for the responsible, profitable use of our time and talent.

Cause #2:  Fear of Failure. The thought of success may be overwhelming, but the thought of failure is totally abashing. Failure causes a loss of face--a blow to the ego that few of us are able to confront constructively. Procrastination keeps us from failing for the simple reason that we cannot possibly fail at something if we never attempt anything in the first place.

Cause #3:  Low Frustration Level. When a thing is too difficult, too messy, too complex, or too arduous, the temptation to delay is unusually great. We may feel that we will only be frustrated or thwarted in our efforts should we undertake the task. Thus, the perception of possible pain or discomfort results in postponing things until later (or perhaps never) to avoid the hurt and frustration of doing those things that we think will cause us discomfort.

Cause #4:  Misplaced Priorities. When you do not know what you should do first, it is easy to do second or third things first and let first things fend for themselves. Besides, we all know that second and third things are much more fun than first things. They are not as hard, frustrating, complicated, or pressure laden. They tend to be quick, simple, easy, and mindless activities. Unfortunately, they are also low in profitability and payoff. Low priority items allow us to spend our time in pleasurable pursuits without accomplishing anything really meaningful.

Cause #5:  Poor Time Estimating. Underestimating the time required for a project leads to procrastination because the task is then perceived as one that will not take long and can, consequently, always be done later--we hope. Overestimating the time needed for an activity also results in procrastination because of the feeling that the activity will take too long and thus cannot be started now because there is not enough time available to complete the job. In either case, underestimating the time required or overestimating the time required, means nothing is accomplished because nothing is started.

Cause #6:  Lack of Motivation. Often we procrastinate because we are not willing to put forth the effort required to do a particular thing. We are not motivated to expend the necessary energy. Maybe the anticipated payoff appears too small, or the expenditure of energy required seems too large, or perhaps we just do not want to do the job, whatever it is. The end result? The project never gets finished since we are not willing to start working on it in the first place. When motivation is lacking, results are always absent.

Cause #7:  Perfectionism. The need to do a job more than right, more than correct, or as close to an exaggerated idea of perfection as possible is another great paralyzer that freezes many of us into inaction. The procrastinating perfectionist typically suffers from a severe case of the paralysis of analysis. Always needing more data to make a perfect decision, always needing more time to take a perfect action, always waiting for the perfect moment to do a job “right,” the perfectionist waits for just the right time before doing anything. Since this time never comes, the task is continually put off. Procrastination wins again!

There we have them--the major causes of this fatal disease called procrastination. But identifying the underlying causes is only the first part of our treatment program. Let’s now turn our attention to elements of the cure for procrastination.

How to Cure Procrastination

If you do not suffer from procrastination you are a rare person indeed. Being afflicted with procrastination, however, is not a crime. Failure to do something about it is. What can you do to overcome the problem? Consider the following actions.

Step #1:  Recognize the Problem. When you are procrastinating recognize it and freely admit it. Do not try to rationalize it. Do not attempt to kid yourself about it. Do not try to fool yourself into believing that you are actually waiting for more data, the right moment, or a sufficiently large block of time to tackle a task when, in fact, none of these things are true. When you are procrastinating, simply admit it and acknowledge it. Do not try to cover it up. But then commit yourself to doing something about it.

Step #2:  Examine your Reasons. Once you have gotten your procrastination out into the open and have honestly acknowledged it, ask yourself why are you avoiding action? Is your reason valid or is it just an excuse? Are you holding back because of fear of success or fear of failure? Is it lack of motivation? Or lack of priorities? Chances are you are procrastinating because you have created your own excuses for inaction. If so, recognize that they are excuses, not reasons; throw them out; and get to work!

Step #3:  Do Not Feel Guilty. When you are procrastinating for a valid reason (but make certain it is a good reason), do not feel guilty about it. There are times--although not as many as we would like to believe unless we are making wine or cheese--when delay is the best approach to take to an activity. If you are putting off doing something for a reason that makes good sense, one that stands up under careful scrutiny, do not mentally flagellate yourself for your inaction. Feeling guilty, particularly when it is unnecessary, will only make matters worse.

Step #4:  Keep Your Priorities Straight. You must at all times keep the truly important pursuits clearly separated from the really unimportant activities. Focus on the vital few things that must be done, not the trivial many chores that can wait. Do not put second things first. Know what has to be done and when it needs to be done. Remember, there is always time to do the most important things in life, if you but know what is really important. If you do not know how to assign priorities, make it your number one priority to learn how to do so.

Step #5:  Do Not Put Yourself Down. Never underestimate your talents and abilities to the point where you are afraid to attempt a task. Do not play “poor little ol’ me” or put yourself in the “pitty potty.” These are negative mind games guaranteed to lead to even more procrastination--and fewer positive results. You are always capable of doing more than you think you are. Even if you fail at a task, do not let that become an excuse for future procrastination. Do not think any less of yourself for what seems to be a failure, just get up and try again until you succeed.

Step #6:  Do the Difficult First. A difficult task does not get easier, less messy, or more enjoyable because you delay doing it. In fact, many jobs get more difficult the longer they are postponed. Doing the hardest project first does, however, get it out of the way. And that certainly makes the “fun” things even more enjoyable to do when you get around to them.

Step #7:  Reward Yourself. When you have undertaken and successfully completed a task without procrastinating, reward yourself. “Goof off” for a while if you consider that a fitting reward. Do something purely for fun. Give yourself a mental pat on the back for promptly completing a difficult or bothersome job. Onerous tasks of the future will not appear in as dreadful a light if you reward yourself for prompt performance in the present.

Procrastination? There is no doubt about it: it is the main business killer. But it can be cured. In essence, procrastination is a bad habit and, like all bad habits, it can be corrected by replacing it with a good habit--the habit of action. Start doing this now and  free yourself of its clutches.

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