Conquering Procrastination —a critical time management skill

Shorter deadlines, competing priorities, countless meetings, and spur-of-the-moment interruptions are some of the challenges facing leaders today.  Without an internal drive for accomplishment, some of us are especially pressed to get things done.  For many, the culprit is procrastination!  It afflicts us all.  More projects go unfinished and more time is squandered by procrastination than by any other single factor.  Let’s face it, it is a harmful and costly habit.  It’s doing less important tasks or activities rather than higher priority ones.  Its straightening our desk when we should be working on that report; watching TV when we should be exercising; having another cup of coffee when we should be scheduling an appointment.  If we could only learn to shift our procrastination from important to unimportant matters, our problem would disappear.

Procrastination–Why We Do It

We tend to delay activities that are unpleasant or tasks that are difficult.  Instead, we putter around with little things.  We keep busy so that we have an excuse that will later justify our postponements. Whatever the reasons and whatever it is that we put off, we know that avoidance never makes it disappear.  In fact, it makes it worse.  Anxiety nags at us and we’re more likely to get irritable and distracted until it finally makes us miserable.  The amazing truth about procrasting is that the energy it takes to avoid a task is often far greater than just getting it done. Eventually, we roll up our sleeves and we get it done. We rejoice with relief and say to ourselves, "I don't know why I put that off, it wasn't so bad."  Meanwhile, we suffered the guilt, tension, and anxiety that comes with this do-it-later habit. We know that these things don’t fade away by being ignored.

Get Started and Keep Going

All of us have our share of difficult or unpleasant tasks. So, how can we conquer our tendency to procrastinate?  First, we need to understand two important forces that are at work here. The first is HABIT.  Procrastination breeds procrastination.  That's right, the more we do it, the more we’ll continue to do it.  Changing our do-it-later urge into a do-it-now habit will require positive action on our part, but it can be done. The second factor is INERTIA.  From physics, we learn that a body at rest remains at rest.  It takes greater force and energy to start movement than to sustain it once it’s in motion.  This is why we get better gas mileage on the highway as compared to city driving which involves a lot of stop and go.  To conquer procrastination we have to overcome our inertia.  We’ll learn that once begun, action is much more likely to continue.  It’s the beginning that’s most difficult.  Like getting out of bed in the morning, once in motion you’ll likely stay in motion.

Take Preventive Action

Here are several tips for conquering procrastination:

  1. Admit that you’re delaying. Recognize it.  As long as you deny or rationalize your procrastination, you’re in no position to stop it. Once you admit it, however, you’ve taken the first step toward managing it.
  2. Consider the consequences.  Sometimes, just considering the costs of a delay is enough to get some of us moving.  When you’re tempted to procrastinate, stop and ask, “What problems am I likely to create for myself?”  If you don’t want to live with those problems, don’t procrastinate.
  3. Take small steps.  In other words, break the activity or task into smaller steps and focus on one step at a time in short segments.  Completing one small step will give you a sense of accomplishment and get you moving in the right direction.
  4. Self-Talk.  Use positive affirmations, i.e.. “I can, I will”.
  5. Make a commitment.  Scheduling when you’ll do it and/or by promising others may provide the motivation to get it done.

For a complete assessment of your time management skills, I invite you to take our online time management assessment. It will help you assess your effectiveness and create a personal plan for improving your skills in 12 key time management areas.

Tom Sullivan is an executive leadership and organizational development consultant with ProGrowth Associates.

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