The Great Procrastination Myth
Why I don't believe in procrastination...
I had an interesting session with one of my clients this morning. He was frustrated and beating himself up for procrastinating on a big project at work. He's a senior executive at a major corporation, and would be considering extremely successful by any definition of the term. So for him to complain about procrastination was an interesting juxtaposition for me.
In reflecting about the session, I've realized that I have some difficulty with the whole concept of procrastination as my clients define it. It got me thinking about what procrastination really is and what causes it.
Here's what a do believe...
Let me start by saying that this isn't a scientific theory, but it's based on my personal experiences with the men I work with in my practice. In this experience, I've seen several reasons for what my clients call procrastination.
- Plodders and racehorses: Plodders are like plow horses. They have incredible stamina and don't get bored easily. They can spend day after day working on the same task without complaint. Racehorses thrive on the thrill of the race. Once the racing saddle is on and they're lined up at the starting gate, they tingle with anticipation for the race. They are ready to give it all they have until they reach the finish line. The majority of the highly successful men I work with are in the racehorse category.
When you were in high school, did you read a chapter a day each day for a week before the test? Or did you stay up until 3 in the morning reading the entire book the night before? Chances are the work style you gravitated to as a teenager is the work style you'll continue. The challenge then ISN'T how to change what already works for you. It's to acknowledge what you are doing and find a way to make that process work better.
- State of mind: When you have a report to write, a garage to clean, or a puzzle to solve, you need to be in the right state of mind. It's hard to describe, but when you're there, you're there. Everything just seems to flow effortlessly. Mozart described this when he wrote about his process for composing masterpieces. He wrote that he didn't know where the music was coming from, he was just trying to get it down on paper as quickly as he possibly could before he forgot it.
Our brains aren't "on" 24 hours a day. When you work on something important while you're fatigued, you're not going to be happy with the results. For many of my clients it's the pressure of the deadline that gets sets the stage for the right work to just flow.
- Prioritization: How important is what you're doing? Is this a presentation to the board, or is it a new policy on the coffee service? Never allow yourself to let the little things get in the way of the big things. It's a lazy Saturday afternoon, and you have a choice between cleaning out the garage and throwing a ball around with your kids. For Pete's sake, forget about the garage. Even if you do clean it, it's just going to get all cluttered again.
If what you're "procrastinating" is unessential, you have my permission to just let it go. Just erase it from your to-do list. If it truly is a big deal, someone will chase you down for it. But if no one else cares, you shouldn't either.
- Active Inactivity: Did you ever have a perfect presentation just come to you out of nowhere? After sweating it out all week, you woke up one morning and you knew just what you were going to say to the board?
Much of this "active inactivity" gets labeled as procrastination. But when you're constantly doing, you don't leave much time for thinking. And thinking is where the great ideas percolate. The problem is that much of this thinking happens beneath the surface, in your subconscious mind. So you can't monitor the process and get the sense you're accomplishing something. It may feel frustrating. It may feel like procrastination. It may seem like you're avoiding something. You need to recognize this is a critical step. For many, skipping this step means they are forcing something that is less than their best. So allow yourself the space for this process to develop.
- Pushing Through Your Comfort Zone: Procrastination may be a case of nerves. This is normal when you are pushing yourself to a new level professionally or personally. Even if you're not consciously aware of it, you begin to question: "Am I really capable of this?", "Who am I to be doing this?"
This hesitation means you are broadening your horizons, moving yourself to a new, higher level in your career and your life. Are you capable of it? Who knows. But you'll never know the answer to that unless you test the limits. Think of how many mistakes you've made to get yourself to this point in your life. What could one more hurt?
When IS it a problem?
Hopefully by know you've realized that what you've been calling procrastination is part of a valuable process, and may not even be a problem at all. However, for some of you, it may really be a problem. Do any of these describe you?
- Missing deadlines: Yes, you'll miss some of them. But if this is a pattern, or if you tend to miss the biggies, that's a problem. This may likely be a case of you being fearful of pushing yourself out of your comfort zone to the next level.
In my early days of doing consulting, I had an opportunity to work on a major project for a global organization. I had gotten a glowing recommendation from another client, and the prospective client had actually reached out to me requesting a proposal. All I had to do is submit it by the end of the week. Easy, right? Nope. I never did it. And I'm sure if I had I would've won the business.
But I just didn't believe I was ready for it. I came up with every excuse in the book why they wouldn't select me, so why should I waste my time working on the proposal. I talked myself out of even trying for the business. All because I was scared.
If your procrastination is holding you back, it's probably underlying anxiety or fear and it's time to take action. You shouldn't have to be held back from reaching what you know you can achieve.
- Leads to demoralization: This might be the most dangerous of the three. This is when you use procrastination to beat yourself, getting even further away from your goals. Here's how this internal conversation goes...
I really should finish that presentation for the board meeting next month. It would be nice to get it done early this year. Why don't I ever get anything done early? Why do I always put everything off until the last minute? I'm so lazy; I could just take some time today to get it done, but I know I won't.
And the conversation spirals downward from there. By the end of it, you're so beaten up that it's impossible to be productive and creative. And then you beat yourself up for being demoralized, right? This is a destructive cycle and needs to stop. Perhaps you can stop it by better understanding your own process. If not, a few sessions with a therapist could work wonders. You simply can't be at your best after you've just beaten yourself up.
- Facing serious repercussions: Like the attorney I worked with several years ago who was missing court appearance. That's a biggie. It turns out that he had a bad outcome in one of his trials and that had caused him to dread returning to the courtroom.
This is a case of anxiety getting in the way of accomplishment. The anxiety of going into the courtroom was so great that he was willing to deal with the potential repercussions. Until someone filed a bar complaint and he knew he needed to take action. As we explored it, it became clear to him that it wasn't laziness or procrastination. Instead, we were able to treat the anxiety so he could be comfortable in the courtroom again.
Because I specialize in hypnotherapy, I regularly get requests to use hypnosis to treat procrastination. However, when I dig a bit deeper, my client and I quickly realize that procrastination isn't the problem. Either the client has a completely normal process and just didn't understand how the process works (I love these because I can usually get the client sorted out in just a session or two.), or there is something underlying the procrastination that needs to be addressed.
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