If your motto is "Don’t do today what you can put off until tomorrow," you may be putting too much stress on your business. You need just twenty-one days and a strategy to kick one procrastinating habit.
To most people, procrastination comes easily. There’s even an official organization: the Procrastinator’s Club of America. We all put off doing things we know we must get accomplished. Psychologists number those who suffer serious procrastination-related problems at 40 million in America alone. About 20% of 210 surveyed adults recently said they were chronic procrastinators ("Prevalence of Procrastination among Samples of Adults," by J. Harriott and J.R. Ferrari, Psychological Reports [April 1996]). Almost 40% of 146 reported in an earlier study that procrastination had caused them personal financial loss within the last year ("Validation of an Adult Inventory of Procrastination," paper by W. McCown and J. Johnson at the 1989 annual meeting of the Society for Personality Assessment). Time management experts call procrastination as natural as breathing.
Procrastinating in one’s personal life may be relatively harmless. A room may go unpainted, a novel unread, an exercise bike unused. In the world of business, however, procrastination can spell ruin for one person or an entire organization. Business people typically find themselves working all the time simply to keep up with the workload. Yet they will continue to procrastinate when it comes to some aspects of their work, and this can result in an extended period during which they don’t accomplish enough. In addition to serious business concerns, the stress this generates can cause grim health consequences, such as headaches, ulcers, and even heart attacks and strokes.
In this Quick-Read you will find:
- How to recognize procrastination tendencies in yourself.
- Common mistakes that lead to procrastination.
- A strategy to curb the urge to procrastinate.
Just as it did not begin overnight, procrastination cannot be overcome overnight. Those expecting to go to bed a textbook procrastinator and wake up a dynamic master of time management are fooling themselves. A number of techniques, however, can help you take the first crucial steps toward efficiency.
- Don’t feel guilty or inferior about your procrastination tendencies. Procrastinators tend to be bright, creative, articulate people, so you are in good company. Simply recognize that to maintain anything approaching a high level of success, you will need to make better use of your time.
- One of the most misused tools of time management is the to-do list. We all make them, but instead of tackling the tasks that are the most important, high-payback, or profit-generating, we give priority to those which can be accomplished quickly and painlessly. We see more items checked off this way, but we typically end up copying key tasks over onto the next day’s list, and then the next day’s. Eventually, that key task becomes a crisis, and we find ourselves in a last-minute crunch, cramming and placing undue stress on employees and colleagues.
Instead of using to-do lists, schedule time for yourself when you have an important task to accomplish. Treat the task and the time you’ve scheduled for it just as you would any other important event — a meeting with a client or lunch with a potential new business partner. Don’t allow less important tasks to encroach.
Don’t allow yourself to become distracted, either. Let voice mail pick up phone calls. If you simply can’t leave a ringing phone unanswered, turn off the ringer. Don’t convince yourself that it might be an important client whose call you shouldn’t miss. If the matter is important, they will call back or await your return call. Let your employees know you are not to be disturbed, and then stick to the task at hand.
- Just as you wouldn’t try to write an entire book in one sitting, realize that some tasks are too large and complex to finish in one work session. If a project seems overwhelming, divide it into more manageable pieces, and tackle one piece at a time. Schedule time to complete each of these less intimidating subtasks.
- Most important, make a habit of your new approach. Don’t use efficient methods just once in a while; make a point to incorporate them into your everyday routine. Experts say it takes twenty-one days to form a habit, at which point, it becomes automatic and you will no longer have to force yourself to do what you know is right. At that point, move on to the next habit you want to change, and give it three weeks worth of attention as well. Eventually, you will find your procrastinating tendencies drop by the wayside.
REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]
A self-proclaimed life-long procrastinator, Michael Anthony believes he caught the bug in high school and college, putting off studying for exams or writing papers until the night before they were due. Following graduation, Anthony carried his penchant for procrastination into the business world, where he typically waited until the last minute to draft key documents, presentations and business plans.
When he accepted his current post as president and CEO of Big Picture Technologies, a Canada-based producer of e-commerce software, Anthony discovered that mixing procrastination and the Internet was like mixing oil and water.
"Everything we are doing is so important that I couldn’t afford to let anything fall between the cracks," says Anthony.
Today, Anthony begins each day by evaluating his agenda and determining which tasks will have the most immediate yield for the organization. When key decisions are made, he immediately initiates the solution he and his colleagues have chosen.
"I never put anything off to another day that could be immediately accomplished," he explains. "If it’s worth doing at all, then I do it now."
Last year, Big Picture Technologies grew five-fold, with seven-to-ten-fold growth expected this year. Anthony’s workforce also grew from 12 to more than 100, and Anthony now finds himself lecturing others on setting priorities.
"There is so much more you can effectively get out of a day and out of your life," he says.
DO IT [top]
- Learn to recognize procrastination tendencies. Are you always under pressure? Do you often leave tasks uncompleted until the next business day? Are you having difficulties finding files because your office is in a perpetual state of clutter? At the end of the year, do you find that you did not meet the goals you set on January 1?
- Enlist the help of an expert. Read time management books, watch videos or attend a seminar. If you feel you don’t have time for such activities, make time. The return on your investment will definitely be worth the sacrifice.
- Organize your workspace. It’s difficult to accomplish the tasks at hand if it takes you an hour to put your hands on a key document. Determine how best to file important papers, so that you can easily find them.
- Recognize that you will never be able to completely eliminate procrastination from your life. Start with one area that’s been plaguing you, and then give it the attention it deserves.
- Let go of your ego. Saying you work best under pressure and rushing around at the last minute may make you feel impressively efficient, but it’s only adding unnecessary stress to your life and the lives of those around you.
- Are there recurring tasks that you always postpone because you dislike doing them? Consider delegating them or trading them for other responsibilities.
- Select a major important project that you are postponing because it seems too overwhelming to start. Draw up a schedule for its completion, with deadlines for manageable project objectives and tasks.
Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play by Neil A. Fiore (J.P. Tarcher/St. Martins, 1989). A psychologist’s advice for dealing with the reasons we procrastinate.
It’s About Time!: The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them by Linda Sapadin and Jack Maguire (Penguin, 1997).
Procrastinate Less and Enjoy Life More: A Procrastinator’s Guide to Self-Improvement by Harold L. Taylor. (H. Taylor Time Consultants, 1999). A quick read with easy-to-implement tips.
Manage Your Time Your Work Yourself by Merrill E. Douglass and Donna N. Douglass (AMACOM, 1993). Chapter 10: "Conquering Procrastination."
Conquering Procrastination: How to Stop Stalling and Start Achieving by Niel A. Fiore (Nightingale-Conant, 1994). Six cassettes and a booklet, available from http://www.successsuccess.com/catalog4sale.htm.
Procrastination in the Workplace. Employer-Employee.com.
"It’s Now or Never," by Jan Norman. Business Start-Ups (June 1999).
Use Your Time More Wisely by Elizabeth Inskip-Paulk. Entrepreneur.com (July 10, 2000).
Writer: Julie Cook
Interview with Harold Taylor, president, Harold Taylor Time Consultants Inc., North York, Ontario, Canada. (416) 491-0777.