«Decision Making Page 3 Either/Or decisions Page 3 Page 4 Prediction and Hindsight Decisions about resources Page 4 Prioritising tasks Page 6 ...»
Procrastination Page 1
How we rationalise procrastination Page 1
The emotional bases of procrastination Page 1
The ABC of tackling procrastination Page 2
Other factors that affect procrastination Page 2
Decision Making Page 3
Either/Or decisions Page 3
Prediction and Hindsight
Decisions about resources Page 4
Prioritising tasks Page 6 Decisions based on feedback Page 6 Procrastination in decision making Page 7 Procrastination Procrastination, actively delaying or postponing the start or completion of a task, is something that most of will do at some point. However whilst most of us will occasionally procrastinate at work surveys consistently show that about 20% of adults admit to regular procrastination that has a negative impact on their work and life. Outside of the workplace that figure rises to 50% when studying is involved, either in higher education or professional qualifications.
Contrary to popular belief procrastination isn’t caused by lack of enthusiasm, low self-esteem, or poor time-management. Procrastination is in fact an emotional reaction to a situation, and as such one that gives short term benefits or “secondary gains” to the person involved. As an emotional activity it doesn’t readily respond to an intellectual approach – as an irrational activity you can’t rationalise your way out of it.
This is why techniques about to-do lists, reminders, and folders don’t see sustained success, and in fact often just add another layer of procrastination and displacement activity.
How we rationalise procrastination The other area of confusion about procrastination is caused by our facility at rationalising our decisions once we have made them, and justifying them not just to other people but to ourselves. As such we may find them compelling but they are generally easy to spot however because they repeat the same few themes.
There are rationalisations based around the idea of “I work best under pressure” leading people to explain their procrastination by claiming that if they let the pressure build up then they will produce better work.
The form that “better” takes can vary – it can be that they will be quicker, more focussed, or more prepared. A sure sign of procrastination is where the delay is based on being better prepared but no active steps are taken to improve knowledge or skills.
Other rationalisations can refer to emotions, but not the real ones involved. These might use the idea of a job or task needing a particular frame of mind for it to be successful, and see the job postponed until that frame of mind arrives. I say “arrives” instead of “is achieved” because again another sign of this being a spurious rationalisation is that no steps are taken to try and achieve the frame of mind apparently required.
Finally we have rationalisations about control – that circumstances didn’t allow us to start or complete the task, that it relied on a contribution from someone else, or that another task was more important or more urgent. What none of these address are the earlier instances of procrastination that allowed the task to drift to a point where outside circumstances conspired against success.
The emotional bases of procrastination.
Briefly these can be listed as perfectionism, anger, low self-esteem, and status anxiety.
Perfectionism can either be as a result of management expectations and the culture in the workplace, or it can come from the procrastinator’s own internal values. Whichever is the case the result is that the person freezes, overwhelmed at the prospect of making no mistakes, or in achieving an impeccable first draft.
Where the perfectionism is driven by internal values the freeze can also be caused by an ever expanding idea of what the ideal end product would contain.
Anger can cause procrastination by essentially taking us back to a more immature response. Anger, whether at a colleague, an employer, a customer or a supplier, can see us try to redress the balance or register our unhappiness by withdrawing our cooperation. The result is that work is deliberately left in the expectation that this will provoke a conversation where we will be able to articulate our dissatisfaction.
Low self-esteem causes procrastination through the person’s inability to believe that they have the skills required for the task in hand. Whereas perfectionism can be about a fear of failure with low self-esteem the fear can be one of success. Discomfort with success can lead to the subconscious sabotage of work through procrastination.
Finally status anxiety can cause procrastination. In a link with low self-esteem this may be through the belief that the task is too high status, and that attempting it would appear would risk looking arrogant.
Equally it may be around the task being perceived as too low status, and avoiding them is used to reinforce or demonstrate the individual’s view of themselves.
The ABC of tackling procrastination There is a method of tackling the emotional bases for procrastination that uses the ABC model familiar in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. In this model
• A is the Activating Event, in this case the job or task that you are procrastinating about.
• B is for Beliefs, and these are not the “rationalisations” that were discussed earlier. Instead they are the emotional reasons, and the internal dialogue around them. In looking at these be sure to test your assumptions in the “court of thought” – cross examine your beliefs and ideas and ask whether there is any evidence to support them.
• C is for Consequences, in this case the outcomes of our different behaviours. Essentially there are two different types of behaviour following the activating event and your beliefs: rational and irrational. The irrational response will be to believe that procrastination will either improve the situation, or have no negative effect. If after looking at your beliefs about the task you still decide to procrastinate then take a robust look at those actions – what are the likely effects? What have the effects been before? Have they been successful for you before?
The aim of the ABC approach is to allow you to examine your reasons for procrastination about a task; to look to improve that if it proves faulty or unhelpful; to look at your options following your reasoning; and finally to identify a rational and positive response to the event.
You won’t need to repeat this with every task in the future. In the same way that procrastination becomes a learned behaviour so too do the critical thinking skills used to tackle it.
Other factors that affect procrastination Whilst procrastination has an emotional basis there are some outside influences that make self-regulation harder to achieve.
The right amount and quality of sleep is vital, and tiredness and sleep-deprivation will undermine any efforts at self-regulation. Similarly blood glucose levels need to be steady, as self-regulation has been shown to depend upon and reduce glucose levels in the bloodstream. Eating regularly and healthily, and avoiding spikes and drops in blood sugar is therefore also essential to self-regulation.
Whilst writing down your goals is shown to improve your chances of achieving rather than deferring them, nothing is as effective as sharing your goals with other people, and making yourself accountable to them at the same time.
Finally procrastination is often linked to poor decision making skills.
Decision Making There are a number of simple techniques that can be used to gain clarity and perspective in decision making, and allow you to be able to settle on a course of action.
Either/Or decisions The simplest decision is an “either/or” choice – for instance “Should I move premises – yes or no?”. Most people take the approach of weighing the pros and cons As we saw with the bases for procrastination emotional decisions and responses aren’t immediately open to intellectual or rational decision making. It’s this mismatch that can see people endlessly weighing the pros and cons of a choice and never really making any headway.
One way past this impasse is to phrase the question differently instead – not “pros” and “cons” but instead look at what’s holding you in the status quo and what’s pulling you towards change. Examining these responses, and questioning their validity, can lead to decision making that’s quicker because it’s more congruent with your values.
Prediction and hindsight In the simple “either/or” decision we looked at before the reaction of many people would have been to complicate the process by attempting to weigh the two potential outcomes, then their responses, and the potential outcomes from those, and so on.
The result is that you attempt to assess continually diverging sequences of events, leading to different outcomes, as shown below.
The fact is that our brains aren’t designed or able to cope with this approach particularly well, even when we are able to limit the potential points of divergence. Imagine instead if you could have the benefit of hindsight before the event.
The way to achive this is to imagine that you’ve already made the decision, it’s now at some point in the future and the result has been disastrous. Go back and look at the chain of events, and what went wrong – just as an air crash or major accident inquiry would.
Having done that once repeat the process, and keep going back over different chains of events where different factors or decisions cause failure, and develop a stronger and more resilient chain of events.
What you’ll end up with is a much straighter and clearer direction that you’ve already tested with the benefit of “hindsight”.
Decisions about resources So far these have all been contingent decisions – “if I do this then what will happen?” However we all have to make decisions about where to focus our resources – whether these are finance, employees, or time, our resources have a finite limit.
The following technique uses two lines to plot your current circumstances, and give you the overview to decide where to concentrate next.
In this example I’ve decided to look at the position of some business tasks in relation to time and finances.
The horizontal axis is time, moving from early through on time to late. The vertical axis is cost, moving from under-budget, through on budget to overspent. In this way the bottom left of the graph contain items underspent and early, and the top right hand those that are late and overspent.
You can then plot your activities on the graph according to their deadline and budget status, like so;
From this example you can see that my blog is ahead of time (with blog posts pre-written) and under-spent on research material. My CPD activity is also ahead of schedule but overspent. My new website video however whilst under-spent is extremely late. Just sight of this brings home how much time I justify spending on activities I enjoy (writing and CPDs) and avoid spending on much more urgent tasks.
The two axes can be substituted for other factors – proportion of working day, financial investment, return, satisfaction – and used to ask questions and make decisions based around them.
Prioritising tasks By using the same two axes, but changing them to “Importance” and “Urgency” you can prioritise tasks using the same method as Eisenhower whilst in charge of the Allied forces in World War 2.
Tasks that are
• urgent and important should be dealt with straight away – “delivered”
• urgent but not important should be passed to someone else if possible – “delegated”
• not urgent but important should be timetabled then for action later on– “decided”
• not urgent and not important should be looked at later, and assessed as to whether they should be done at all – “deferred”
Decisions based on feedback
When making decisions based on feedback there is a natural tendency to favour positive feedback, and to spend a disproportionate amount of time on it. The following technique uses the same approach as Eisenhower’s matrix above, but looks to sort feedback on events and products into four discrete types based on their mixture of negative and positive comments.
The feedback is sorted into
• entirely positive comments – “I thought it was good – don’t change it” - COMPLIMENTS
• broadly positive comments but with some criticism - “I thought it was good – but it needs to change” - ADVICE
• broadly negative comments – ““I thought it was bad – but I can live with it” – SUGGESTIONS
• entirely negative comments - “I thought it was bad – and it has to change” – CRITICISM Obviously the distribution of comments between these is important but all things being equal most people spend at least half their time on compliments and suggestions.
The suggestion here is to ignore the positive comments once you have acknowledged them, and to concentrate instead on the less comfortable – you’ll get more return from your time.
Procrastination in decision making One common justification for delaying making a decision is the argument that given more time then knowledge about the situation will have increased in order to support a “better” decision.
In the following graph the blue line shows knowledge increasing over time. However the red line shows the extent of our consequences diminishing over the same period – whilst we learn more about a situation, especially where that learning is based on waiting rather than education, then our ability to influence events decreases.
This is why timeliness in decision making is so important, and why attempting to avoid future regrets can’t