Addressing the problem of controlling procrastination

Edited by Christopher S. Frings PhD, CSP

Controlling procrastination

Q: I am a lab manager with a
serious problem of procrastination. Does the panel have any suggestions about how to control procrastination?

A: What are you procrastinating? Is
it writing an article for MLO? Is it writing that chapter you promised for an upcoming book? Is it improving your self-management skills so you are an effective manager of yourself and others? Is it that budget that is overdue? Is it doing those employee performance evaluations?

Procrastination is defined as putting things off or the delaying of doing something until a later time. The definition does not associate negativity with the word, nor should it necessarily. Procrastination is one of the biggest enemies of personal productivity and effective time management. Procrastination is one way a person protects him/herself from mental or physical discomfort. Everyone procrastinates to some degree. Procrastinating the unimportant things that occur in our day can be a useful talent. Many of us, however, procrastinate the important things in our day, and that results in increased stress and decreased productivity.

Procrastination is a learned experience. Procrastination is normal. When procrastination affects your performance or productivity seriously, it needs to be controlled. The reasons we procrastinate include the following:

  • We fear failure.
  • We dont want to do it.
  • The task is too big.
  • The task is not high enough on our list of priorities.

The first step to controlling procrastination is to examine your procrastination habits. You will want to delve into your personal history of what, when, why and how you procrastinate. This will help you get a handle on what you procrastinate, its frequency and why.

To help you examine your procrastination habits, keep a personal procrastination log for several weeks (dont let anyone see it). Record in the log the tasks you procrastinated, why you procrastinated and one of the following strategies that could be used to help eliminate procrastination of these tasks in the future.

These strategies, tips and practical ways are ones I have found useful in helping to control procrastination:

  • Establish an environment that is conducive to getting the job done. Ask yourself, what is the best time and place to do this job?
  • Clear the clutter. Clutter provides distractions. When distracted, you tend to do things that you would rather do as opposed to things that you should do. A cluttered desk is an interruption every time you try to use it or find anything on it. Working with a clean desk allows you to have only the important task in front of you, so that you can focus all of your attention on that task.
  • Use to-do lists effectively. To-do lists in your date book organizer (paper or electronic) that have been prioritized with a deadline are useful in controlling procrastination. Make out your to-do list every night for the next days plan. A plan of action, prepared the night before, is a roadmap for the next day. You know what your next step ought to be to get you into productive action and away from procrastination. Without a plan of action in place before you arrive for work, it is very easy to get caught up in unimportant activities.
  • Divide and conquer. Divide big tasks into a number of small jobs and set deadlines for the small jobs in your personal organizer. Before you know it, the big task will be complete. For example, tomorrow you plan to work on a four-hour project four hours that most of you are unlikely to get to work on any one item. You have interruptions of various types like meetings and you often wind up procrastinating working on this task because theres not enough time to get this done. Instead of scheduling the entire four-hour project for tomorrow, schedule a small bite, a step or two that might take 20 or 30 minutes. Then the next step on the next days to-do list and the next step after that on that next days list. It may take several days, but you will get that big task completed.
  • Assign deadlines. Deadlines move you to action. Without a deadline, things wind up in your as soon as possible pile where items will get attended to when I get time. Create a deadline; move into action.
  • Picture the end result of the finished job. If you will visualize the positive aspects of completing the task, this may help you commit to doing it. If it is an unpleasant job, remember that when you have completed it, you can go on to something more pleasant.
  • Reward yourself after you complete the task you are procrastinating. Be sure not to reward yourself until the task is completed.

Controlling procrastination requires some self-analysis. This may cause you some discomfort. Dont procrastinate getting started on controlling procrastination. Include controlling procrastination in your goals, try some of the ideas described above, put it in your personal organizer with a priority, and start today. These ideas, concepts and suggestions should help you get control of procrastination.

Larry Crolla suggests, Just do it. Some people find it helpful to make a to-do list and follow through with it every day.

Alton Sturtevant points out, Your situation is not that uncommon. We all adopt a policy of procrastination at times with regard to hard issues or ones that have multiple good solutions. I tend to get paralysis by analysis or caught in an activity trap because I see too many solutions to problems. I tend to be too concerned with coming to a consensus solution and ensuring that everyone is completely satisfied with the results. This causes me to get into a procrastination mode. Does that apply to you? That is not a good place to be, but if that is true of you, accept it and deal with it. An esteemed colleague of mine once said, Poor planning (procrastination) on your part does not create a crisis on my part.

Dr. Sturtevant adds, With all of that said, I try to maintain a to-do list to control my focus and lead me away from procrastination on my part. I keep that list on my computer and PDA (personal digital assistant) as a constant reminder of my priorities. I also try to match to my priorities to those of my superior to ensure that I am being effective by my bosss measurement. I follow Stephen R. Coveys guidance
(The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Simon and Schuster; 1989) with regard to this issue. If I did, the first habit Be proactive would be my first focus. I suggest that you get a copy of this book and use it to help you with this concern. It helps me, and I wish that I would live it. I would be more effective and a better person. Do yourself a favor and read the book.

According to Marti Bailey, Procrastination is a habit, just like nail biting, and one that is equally hard to control. Rather than taking on total correction as your goal, I suggest working on small day-to-day improvements, realizing that these can make a big difference, even though you may always have a tendency toward procrastination. If you typically turn in projects on the deadline date (or later), challenge yourself to get these in one or two days before theyre due. For incoming requests that need action on your part and that you would ordinarily set aside for handling later, make it a goal to handle one or two of these per day on the spot.

She continues, When you find tasks that you cant get to, make a decision about whether theres value in that task or not. If it never gets done and there is no real negative impact, then perhaps those tasks should simply be eliminated. Those tasks that have value but that you cant get to probably need to be delegated. Often this can be a wake-up call to the procrastinator if it needs to get done and youre not able to do it, then it needs to be reassigned. On the other hand, if its something you really need to do yourself, then you need to give it higher priority.

Ms. Bailey adds, One particular reality of the procrastination cycle we can all relate to is that its so easy to replace difficult, challenging tasks that really need to be completed with relatively simple, mindless chores that need to be done but that end up consuming the time we should be spending on the difficult tasks. Managers need to ensure that they have a well-balanced workday just as they need to maintain a well-balanced life in general. Each workday needs to be apportioned into time spent on difficult tasks, as well as on the more mundane ones. Its all too easy to have the constant influx of calls, e-mails and requests begin to manage us instead of us managing them. You may need to set one to two hours aside each day with your door closed, working on tasks of the highest priority. Setting up a schedule of priorities before you leave each evening can help to focus your attention from the moment you arrive the following morning.

Bottom line. Read and use the tips from the panelists on how to control procrastination. My summary solution for you is to set goals with priorities and then review and revise them frequently. In doing this, you will be heading in a direction to solve your procrastination dilemma.

Suggested reading:

Frings, C.S., The hitchhikers guide to effective time management, AACC Press. Washington, DC; 1997.

Christopher S. Frings is an internationally known consultant and speaker on the topics of leadership, managing change, time management, reaching goals, and stress management. His consulting firm, Chris Frings & Associates, is in Birmingham, AL.

February 2003: Vol. 35, No. 2

© 2003 Nelson Publishing, Inc. All rights reserved.