I've been meaning to write a column on this topic for more than a year. But like most business owners I sometimes put things off, or I leave them half-finished, or I don't get to them at all.
I know I'm not alone, but I have a few tricks to keep procrastination at bay – which reduces stress and leads to better results.
Procrastination refers to delaying something that needs to be in done in favour of a task that is more enjoyable, easier or faster. Freud would say it involves the "pleasure principle" – our natural tendency to avoid negative emotions and stressful situations or responsibilities. Call it what you want, it happens to all of us, and improving our ability to avoid procrastination can be a big win for businesses and our personal lives.
The first place to look is in your to-do list and at your priorities. I know a lot of people who choose to complete short or easier tasks first because it allows them to scratch more items off their list. Their argument is that it leaves more time to focus on the bigger and more complicated tasks that remain and it provides relief from other tasks playing on your mind. I get it, but I disagree.
A priority is a priority and no matter what size the job is, the most important one is most important for a reason. Your business needs you to do that first, no matter how difficult it is – dismissing an employee or updating your business plan or calling back a dissatisfied customer. Resist the temptation to misalign your priority list and focus on the most important matters first.
When your priority is a tough task, just do it. You need to realize that completing difficult tasks is what your business needs you to do. My frame of reference in these situations is to focus on the benefits to the business of completing the task. If your business benefits, everyone in the company is a beneficiary, if only indirectly.
Show your team your leadership and tackle the true priorities. They will follow your lead. Now your ability to avoid procrastination is levered throughout your team – that's valuable.
If your task is complicated – such as technical writing, financial analysis or operational reviews – and you need to focus, create an environment that allows you to do just that. While I am a big fan of executives with open-door policies, sometimes that door needs to be shut so you can concentrate. I close my e-mail program and my web browser and I turn off my phone. I work better in a quiet atmosphere. Incoming e-mails, texts, calls and employees outside your door are the perfect conduit to allow yourself to get distracted and procrastinate.
That said, everyone needs a break from complicated tasks, so instead of letting those breaks happen randomly, schedule them. If I am knee deep in a task I will plan to take a break every 90 minutes to two hours. This can be as simple as getting a refill of coffee, opening my e-mail, or turning on my phone to see whether I missed anything urgent. I avoid the temptation to knock out a few replies, as I have already determined that is not a priority, but at least I am accessible if something truly urgent comes up. Otherwise, those e-mails can wait.
Add incoming tasks to your to-do list, reprioritize if necessary, and then get back to work.
Another trick I use to overcome procrastination is to plan a reward when I complete the task. This shifts my focus from the difficulty of the project at hand, to the positive event I will enjoy on completion. As a consultant, this reward is usually an outgoing invoice, which is all kinds of fun. But to keep things more interesting, I'll add to that a commitment to leaving early, taking a day off, going to the beach, or some other activity that keeps me motivated.
The bigger the project, the bigger the reward. For smaller tasks it might be lunch at my favourite place or a personal phone call to catch up with someone I haven't chatted with in a while. There is a wonderful sense of accomplishment when you get good at setting priorities and getting those things done.
To recap, first you need to recognize the pattern for procrastination and then you need to create the surroundings and resources to get them done. Finally, reward yourself for good behaviour with an incentive.
This will turn a negative experience into a more positive one, and it's more likely to get done. Freud would be proud.
Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.
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