Overcoming Procrastination: A Practical Approach
Andrew J. Berner. Reprinted from Information Outlook. © Special Libraries Association. www.sla.org
Everyone procrastinates. Indeed, it is the very pervasiveness of the problem which prevents us from taking it as seriously as it merits. It is difficult to be overly concerned with a vice (yes, a vice) which is so common that it has become the subject of humorous T-shirts, mugs, or other paraphernalia bearing such statements as, “I’m going to stop procrastinating…tomorrow.” Or “never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”
Despite the levity, it is important to recognize procrastination as the serious time-waster it is, affecting not only the amount of work we and our staffs are able to accomplish, but the quality of that work as well. In the information services field we are always looking for ways to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our work in our never-ending effort to demonstrate the vital importance of what we do. Controlling procrastination is certainly a major step in that direction.
While it is true that everyone procrastinates, it is not true that we all do it to the same extent. An occasional postponement of a task is not a major problem. There are those, however, for whom procrastination has become a way of life, and in these cases it is serious indeed. If you think that you fall into the former category (the occasional procrastinator, that is) you should look closely to be sure that this is truly the case.
The signs of procrastination are sometimes more subtle than we might expect. Do you find, for example, that you often begin correspondence with a phrase like, “I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to get back to you,” or, “My apologies for the delay in responding”? This may be an indication that you’re in the habit of putting things off. Similarly, a desk or files filled with projects which you have yet to begin or which are partially completed but inactive, is another sure sign that there’s a problem.
If you are one of those people who insists on cleaning up all the little projects awaiting you in order to remove those “bothersome little things” before you begin a major project, you are actually engaging in procrastination by allowing yourself to fall victim to the “tyranny of the trivial.” Even interruptions — a problem which is endemic in the kind of work we do — can actually be a sign of passive procrastination, if they are used to provide an excuse for postponing necessary projects. In the final analysis, though, there is one sign that demonstrates more than any other that procrastination is a problem, and that is that you regularly find yourself working under pressure to complete a project which you’ve known about for some time.
Reasons for Procrastinating
Like many issues involving time management, procrastination is a behavioral problem, and like all such problems it can, with sufficient motivation, be changed. In order to change a behavioral pattern, however, it is necessary to understand the reasons for that behavior. You don’t procrastinate because you’re a bad person, or because you’re a bad librarian. There are any number of reasons why perfectly good librarians and information services manager procrastinate. Examining those reasons, and determining which of them apply to you (and which apply to staff members for whom you may have managerial responsibility) is the first step in avoiding procrastination in the future.
Don’t know where to start
If you think about it, the tasks which you tend to postpone will generally fall into two categories. The first of these is the fairly large or complex task. Such tasks are generally important in their outcome, which only adds to the pressure to do a good job, and yet their very complexity makes it difficult to know just where or how to begin. The result is that the task is put off until it simply has to be dealt with.
An unpleasant task
The second category of task commonly postponed is that which is either unpleasant to do, or which may have unpleasant consequences. This may be some aspect of your work that you simply don’t enjoy (after all, we don’t all like everything we do), or it may be something like a negative job appraisal for an employee, for which you know there will be repercussions. Again, the task is put off until other pressures make it necessary for it to be tackled.
Fear of failure
On a bit more “psychological” note, there are those who put off tasks because they have a subconscious fear that they will not be able to perform them satisfactorily. Related to this are those who hold themselves to the standard of perfection for all work they do. If they suspect that their work will be less than perfect they may be inclined to put it off.
Excusing sub-standard performance
At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who use procrastination (again, generally not on a conscious level) as a means of excusing work which they know is of poor quality. “I could have done better if I’d had more time,” is the general refrain of such people, though on closer examination it may be found that they didn’t have time, because they chose to procrastinate. Keep in mind, of course, that there are some projects which do come up as emergencies and for which you really don’t have sufficient time, so don’t assume that this refrain is always a sign of a procrastination problem.
Starting too soon
As strange as it may seem, procrastination sometimes results from starting a project too soon. If you begin work on a project before you have a good idea of what needs to be accomplished and how you are going to go about accomplishing it, the project may have to come to a halt, or more commonly it won’t really get under way to begin with. Similarly, if you begin before you have gathered all of the information that will be necessary to complete your work, you may find that you must “temporarily” abandon the project, and you will then have difficulty getting it started again.
While legitimate delegation can be a powerful tool in getting things done in a timely manner, there are those who seem to have the idea that if they put something off long enough it will either not have to be done, or it will be done by someone else. Unfortunately this informal negative delegation is often reinforced by co-workers who simply say, “never mind,” when the requested work is not completed, or worse yet, they do the work themselves. Such “kindness” on the part of others only insures that the problem will continue.
We all face times when we have simply committed to do more than is humanly possible. If this happens only occasionally it is not a serious problem, and the memory of it will hopefully prevent us from doing it again in the near future. There are those, however, who actually enjoy being over-committed. These are the people who suffer from what might be called the “frazzled librarian syndrome.” They never miss an opportunity to let people know how hard they’re working, and it’s important to them that they appear to be harried. For such people procrastination is a way of life because it allows them to always look busy, though they are generally busy working on projects which should have long since been completed. In fact, they sometimes devote more time to maintaining an appearance of being busy than they do to actually accomplishing things.
Lack of focus
There is a certain need for instant gratification in us all. Accordingly, there are times when we procrastinate simply because it is difficult for us to concentrate on a project, the benefits of which will not be realized until some time in the future.
There are many more reasons why people procrastinate. It is not necessary to describe all of them here, but it is important that you take the time to recognize which reasons apply most to you or to your staff members. By doing so you will be able to select from the solutions that follow, the one or more that will best help you to overcome procrastination.
Use the SWAP approach
There are very few large tasks which must be tackled as a single piece. If you analyze an overwhelming task that is currently facing you, you will probably find that it can be broken down into a number of smaller, more manageable pieces. A logical order will emerge for completing each part, or you may have to impose such an order on the component parts. You can then SWAP — “Start With A Part”. And, if you’ve listed the various parts in writing — which is recommended — you can have the pleasure of crossing them off step by step, and seeing a visual representation of the fact that, as you complete each step, you bring yourself closer to the completion of the overall project.
The importance of deadlines
We tend to see deadlines as a cause of stress rather than as a solution. This is because they are often unrealistic, and they are often imposed by others. Actually, when you face a project for which no deadline has been established, you should establish one. This helps you to focus on a project, and it helps you plan your time. Deadlines should not be set only for the completion of the project, but for the various steps along the way as well. Be sure, however, that your deadlines are realistic, or you will only increase the pressure which deadlines — strange as it may seem — have the power to reduce.
The power of priorities
When is procrastination not procrastination? When you have postponed low priority tasks in order to complete tasks of a higher priority. Not everything we do has the same importance and we must recognize this and use it in setting priorities. We must also remember that priorities must constantly be re-evaluated and reordered as circumstances change. If you find that the tasks you are postponing are consistently of low importance, don’t worry. Sometimes, though, you may find that high priority items are the very ones you seek to avoid, while filling your time with “comfort tasks.” If this is this case you may choose to…
Give yourself a reward
It may sound trivial, but it works. This doesn’t mean that you should go out and buy yourself an expensive gift every time you finish a major project (though if you can afford it, why not?) Your reward may be as simple as allowing yourself to work on a task that you particularly enjoy, only after you’ve completed a project that you’ve been putting off.
Tell someone else
If you have a big project to work on, let someone else know about it, and let them know what your deadline is. It may be a co-worker, it may be a family member, it may be a friend. The fact is that while we often don’t mind disappointing ourselves, we are far less likely to disappoint others. Thus, we have the incentive to work on the project, if for no other reason than that we would be embarrassed to have to admit to a friend, family member or co-worker, that we failed.
Avoid momentum busters
It is imperative that you build — and maintain — momentum in working on a project. As Newton tells us, “A body at rest tends to remain at rest, while a body in motion tends to remain in motion.” Newton wasn’t talking about procrastination, but he might have been. Surely the most important step in completing any project is to start it, by whatever means necessary. Once you’ve started, then you have to try to avoid things that will bring you to a halt again. The worst of these is interruptions. If at all possible, try to remove yourself from the source of interruptions. If this isn’t possible, at least differentiate between legitimate interruptions (like requests for your services as an information provider) and social interruptions. Avoid the latter altogether. It’s alright to say to a friend that you can’t talk because you’re working on an important project.
And as far as the interruptions you can’t avoid, be sure that you return to the project immediately after you have dealt with them. And since most important projects will be worked on at more than one “sitting,” be sure that you stop at the right time when you end a working session. That is, don’t stop when you’re facing a difficulty, because you won’t be inclined to return to the project and face that same difficulty the next time. Try to stop at a positive point, and at a point where there will be some logical starting place when you return. In fact, if you can leave yourself a note as to the direction you’re planning to take, that’s always helpful in starting up again.
The Great Myth
When it comes to ending procrastination, perhaps the most important step to be taken is to recognize that there is no truth to the belief that you — or anyone else for that matter — work best under pressure. All procrastinators cite this as part of their creed. They insist that the pressure of a looming deadline helps them to focus their attention, makes them more alert, allows them to perform better, and gives better results in the end. At its best, this is simply wishful thinking and, at its worst, it is the most pernicious form of rationalization, justifying a negative practice by claiming it to be a positive one.
No one works best under pressure. Those who work toward an immediately looming deadline must, of necessity, make use only of the information that is readily available to them, even if it is not the most recent or the most accurate information that exists. They leave no time for fine tuning, for reviewing, or for analysis of the final project.
Worst of all, perhaps, they leave no time for a visit from Mr. Murphy and his law. Remember, anything that can go wrong, will. And as an additional corollary we can state that it will go wrong at the single most inopportune moment. Computers can go down. Printers can fail. Papers can be misplaced. Illnesses can occur (some brought on by stress and pressure, no doubt). Logic alone dictates that this cannot be the best way to do things, and that those who believe that they work best in these circumstances are involved in a game of self delusion which only serves to perpetuate this myth. The sooner we move beyond it, the easier it will be to make procrastination a thing of the past.
This may seem like an overwhelming list of possible solutions to the problem of procrastination. If you want to do something about procrastination, however, the one thing you can’t do is to put it off. Keep in mind that like any other overwhelming project, the project of overcoming procrastination should be broken down into manageable pieces in order to enable you to SWAP. As stated earlier, behavioral change is necessary in order to break the habit of procrastination. Breaking habits requires the creation of other, better habits in their place, and this is never an overnight process. Nor should it be an overwhelming one.
The surest route to failure is to look at this list of solutions and attempt to put them all into effect at once. Select a single solution which seems to have the greatest impact on your specific pattern of procrastination behavior, and begin to put that into effect immediately. Recognize that it will take some time before these new behaviors become ingrained in your regular work process. Once they have, however, you can add additional solutions and change additional behaviors, always being careful to avoid the temptation to become obsessed with the subject. There are, and there always will be, things that you should postpone until later, and you must differentiate these from cases of true procrastination.
Of course, any solution that you choose to pursue, requires that you recognize that what you are dealing with is a serious problem and one that merits a solution. Procrastination isn’t harmless, and it isn’t something that affects only you. True, you are the person working under pressure — unnecessary pressure generally — but others are affected as well. Co-workers have to take up the slack while you work to complete a project on an “emergency” basis. Clients and users of the library may suffer by your inability to provide a high level of service. And most of all, your parent organization may suffer by getting results from you which are simply not as good as they would be if you had given yourself sufficient time. In addition, we must face the fact that procrastination is self-perpetuating. It forces you to postpone still other tasks in order to enable you to complete one that you’ve already postponed. It prevents you from working toward viable goals for yourself and your information unit, because it condemns you to always “putting out fires,” and it condemns you to giving up the concrete accomplishments of today in favor of the nebulous promises of tomorrow.