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In praise of procrastination: the good, the bad, the ugly


Are you a procrastination PRO?

As a matter of fact, I have never met anyone who never procrastinated in their life, including myself. I write and blog about personal effectiveness and smart working amongst other things, but after accepting Jamie’s [HRZone's editor] offer to write for HRZone about this very topic, I proceeded to postpone the moment when I would sit at my desk and actually do some research and then write the article!

But hold-on, of course that was not procrastination…it was just that my clients expected their projects to be completed first, and my children expected their mum to be available for homework, and my girlfriends expected their buddy to be available as emergency help-line… it was all a question of conflicting priorities, right?

RIGHT. Or maybe not so right, maybe actually, fully and utterly wrong!

Procrastination is the beast we can hardly escape. It creeps up on us unexpectedly and can make us feel as we are failing, watching life go by as others actually do things, take actions, move on.    

But is procrastination always SO bad? Do we REALLY need to feel guilty every time we postpone something? It kind of feels that we are being too hard on ourselves, that perhaps it is ok to delay a task occasionally and provided it does not become a habit...but when? Can procrastination ever be ok and what can we do about it?

For everyone’s sanity including my own, I believe it is important to distinguish when procrastination becomes a habit we cannot control or manage, versus situations in which procrastination is deliberate and even necessary. Let me get the latter out of the way.

Case number 1: the task is neither important nor urgent for you

We all come across tasks like these sometimes. In my case filing would be one of those, for example, or answering some emails or queries. Depending on the context, in those cases It could be seen as ok to postpone it for a while. At some point you will run out of space on your desk or bump into the person who sent you the email, and so you will eventually be reminded or forced to complete the task.

Case number 2:  the task is of strategic importance for you

You may think this is an odd piece of advice, but actually when something really matters and you need to gather resources, display clarity of thinking and consider a strategic issue thoroughly, I believe that postponing any activity is the best thing to do.

Not for a very long time, but enough to ensure you have given yourself the time to think through every aspect of it before you actually get into the doing. This can be quite difficult because in general, important but not terribly urgent tasks are quite enjoyable and the temptation is to get on with it without giving it due thinking time.

Best not to do so though and ensure you have a clear picture of what you are going to do when you eventually do it.

Case number 3: the task has important consequences

Imagine a couple of scenarios as follows.

Your client has sent you an email complaining about a poor service they have received. Your boss has left you an upset voice mail because the project is falling behind. Your staff member has let you know through a third party that in your latest meeting you have offended him and he expects an apology.

In all these cases, picking up the phone or writing an email is what most of us are naturally prone to do. However popular wisdom that 'one should sleep on it' may not be totally unfounded.

Most of what we say or write is likely to sound or feel like 'knee-jerk reaction'. Once again we will have not had the time to consider the serious implications of any of our actions and how we may best address it and indeed resolve it.

The best advice is to refrain from doing anything until we have worked through the facts

In some cases. letting a day or even a night pass by may not be a viable option, but still, in all these cases the best advice is to refrain from doing anything until we have worked through the facts either by ourselves or with a colleague/supporter.

In doing so we will gain clarity, understand the details and most likely find the appropriate language to resolve any outstanding issue effectively.

If none of these apply…

If none of this applies however, chances are we are making excuses or even worse, we are talking about a relentless and ongoing behaviour that is equivalent to running for an escape from the real world in order to find refuge on a parallel universe where ownership, accountability and professionalism simply do not exist.

What is behind our lack of decision-making power...and overall adult responsibility?

This is the serious staff, the one that should make us sit up and get worried, and it probably already does as it causes us stress and anxiety. So what is behind our lack of decision-making power, our evident rejection of tasks, projects and overall adult responsibility?   

Clearly we need to explore this in some detail and we may not be prepared to do it alone. A coach can help us address this in helpful and structured ways. But whether alone or with a coach, the point is to recognise it happens and investigate what is stopping us from taking action.

Common reasons include:

  • Lack of effective time management
  • Lack of motivation
  • Lack of self confidence
  • Lack of understanding/purpose.

If any of the above is the reason why we procrastinate it is only by addressing the root causes that we will manage to resolve the issue.

Sometimes it is about our lack of understanding of where the task and perhaps our own role sits in the broader strategic agenda. Other times maybe something to do with lack of clarity on what we are trying to achieve and how we set our own business objectives. Other times again it could be that we are doubting our ability to complete the task.

Ultimately I believe it is about control and not feeling like we are being spectators to somebody else’s action that turns procrastination into a pathology. When other people regularly set the deadlines and the agenda on our behalf, we may be feeling like the task is not our to own.

It may therefore help to ensure that at any one time we have enough important  BUT not necessarily urgent activities to push forward. These are the tasks / projects we love doing and are in control of  without the same, heavy burden of time pressure.  These activities motivate and develop  us, making us feel in charge of our time, energy and resources: protagonists rather than extras in our professional life.

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