Why does it take so long to get cracking with something you know you’ll enjoy doing, you know you’ll learn from, you know will in all likelihood will turn out ok, and is pretty low risk if it goes wrong?
Maybe it just happens to me but it certainly seems a bit crazy!
Nine months ago, following an amazing NLP course, I committed to writing a blog. It was something that made lots of logical and emotional sense to me - I like writing, I like reading and learning new stuff, so writing the blog would allow me to combine these three things. Easy! Eight months ago I launched the blog, announcing that the blog was coming…….eight months later……still nothing!
I’d argue that I wasn’t delaying, simply prioritising - prioritising family, client-facing work, the school PTA and other “stuff”….but is the “stuff” worth more than my development and interests?
I wanted to explore this further. One of the reasons I hadn’t put pen to paper yet was that I couldn’t decide on the topic. And so, deciding to tackle the enemy face on, ‘procrastination' seemed to the perfect subject to start with!
Face your fears
A fellow coach advised me “just do it” - the risk is low and in reality, how many people will read it at first?
In a succinct sentence she had hit on several of my blockers, my limiting beliefs that were stopping me from “just doing it”. I realised I believed in all the following statements:
- The blog has to be perfect (or perfect enough in my mind).
- The people who do read it will judge my intellect, my ability to coach, my ability to write, my ability to be relevant, how nice I am, my parenting, how I run my life.…you get the idea!
- It will take ages.
- It needs to be original research.
These were preventing me from doing what I love, but were they actually true? I looked at them in turn:
- Perfect would be nice, but what is perfect? And, although I am not advocating mediocrity, I’ve read some dross out there! (Helpful dross, of course, as it’s given me encouragement!)
- They may, or they may not judge me. Let’s go with "may not” - and see if that takes me to a more productive space!
- It doesn’t need to take ages. I know a coach who writes very short blogs - just short thought provokers, and frankly, no one has got time to read War & Peace, when there’s Facebook status’s to keep up with!
- I am original, my experience of the world is original, so anything I write will be original.
Damn it….I’ve run out of excuses now!
Is this a pattern?
My procrastination is a familiar friend, a comfy chair - easier to hold back and be risk-sensitive than to be bold and put something out there. It’s my habitat, and in that habitat a pattern of thought and behaviour has formed.
When you read up on NLP - the study of patterns of thoughts, language and behaviour - you come across patterns or programmes that are typical of procrastinators.
"Away from” vs. “Towards"
- If you exhibit “Away From” patterns you have a preference for considering what you “don’t want” rather than what you do and for attempting to address all your concerns before getting started, steering wide of risk. Security is a high priority and this sensitivity can easily stop you from diving in.
- Conversely, if you show patterns of “towards” behaviour you express what you “do” want and easily and frequently set new goals with energy and drive. This excitement may mean however that you’ve moved on before you've finished off.
“Options” vs. “Procedures"
- Exploring options, finding choices, considering all angles are typical of the “Options” pattern. At an extreme this is procrastination.
- Compares with “procedures” behaviour, where you orderly create, complete and tick off lists. Wonderfully efficient, a person with a preference for “Procedures” may focus more on the procedure than on the outcome required.
“Considering” vs. “Doing"
- Similar to “Options”; if you spot this pattern, research, exploring options and implications are all second nature, vs. a “Dooer” who prefers to be active - learning on the go.
Any of these resonate? Acknowledgement of your pattern is the starting point to trying out a new modus operandi: so climb out of your beanbag, kick off those ugg boots and give it a try!
Busy doing nothing….working the whole day through...
I don’t know about you but I’m quite a busy person, busy here, busy there….but too busy to do something fulfilling?
The modern phenomenon of multi-media distraction has been well documented. Multi-tasking with all these alerts, pings, news feeds, blogs(!) etc. etc. - is doing us no good. And then, if you work from home, there’s surfaces to be wiped, laundry to be processed...…...
Why approach a challenging, hairy task when you can get an instant hit of gratification for tackling something far easier and quicker? Get repeat hits mid-activity by quickly checking out what’s happening in the world, with your friends, quick bit of shopping and so on.
Neuroscientist Daniel J Levitin explores this in his book “The Organised Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload”. "Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation."
With mental fog and scrambled thinking I’ve got no chance of dealing with procrastination. To make matters worse he explains how when multi-tasking we use up valuable brain energy every time we make small decisions - these constant queries - to text or not, email or not - take up as much of our brain power as larger decisions. The risk? Our brains are so frazzled we end up making bad choices about the important stuff.
- Focus for 90-120 mins on major tasks;
- Approach this work when your energy levels are the highest; &
- “Lose the distractions!”
Put simply multi-tasking is inefficient - particularly if you have an activity you really need to focus on. Knowing yourself and your energy levels can really help here.
Can you block out time to complete strategic tasks at your peak energy points, saving emails and tactical issues, until , say, 11am when you energy starts to wane?
When you are focusing, turn off email, remove the apps that ping - social media, the news feeds, answer the phone when you are able to answer rather than when you are in the middle of an important task and so forth. It’s a habit we’ve acquired and it’s a habit we can break.
Looking back at our beliefs around our necessity to be in constant contact is a good place to start. Or alternatively just do it!
Overthinking and the role of intuition
I read a description of procrastination as planning between two opposite course of action. We go one way…then back off….head down the other route……then back off. All this thinking could be perceived as analysis - useful even. But is it paralysis? It certainly was for me. More useful would have been to do some objective, time-bound reflection then make a decision.
Ahh - making a decision…..but do I have to? I had a wonderful crazy Swedish manager who modeled decision-making to a tee. Did she always make the right decisions? Who’s to say, but she did move through decisions like a high-speed train. She suggested I trust my intuition more - test it out, give it a try. For someone who says, “I don’t mind” to an awful lot of questions, this is a challenging concept. But what if I “had to” make a decision?
Feeling or listening to my instinct is a new one for me, cutting out inner noise. I can think of plenty of examples when I haven’t followed my instinct, and this may well be my risk-averse, smoothing over pattern re-emerging.
But, as with all patterns, with a bit of testing, it’s there to be challenged. I’ve changed other patterns before. So why not this one? I never used to be able to do full press ups, but years of carrying twins has built up those muscles, so I’m hopeful it’s the same for my intuition. Indeed, I made two important decisions recently, based purely on intuition, and you know what, it felt amazing!
Breaking it down
My blockers were largely fear based, but that’s not what causes everyone to procrastinate. The sheer perceived size of a project is enough to put most of us off, whether complex or just massive.
Brian Tracy writes about slicing your projects up like a salami - you wouldn’t eat a whole salami in one go - you’d go slice by slice. I personally wouldn’t touch a salami but give me cake as a metaphor, and I’ll happily eat it in chunks of any size!
Gluttony aside, his point is simple, obvious perhaps, but it works. Go for easy slices first if that eases you in, don’t do them all in the same time period and leave the dry ends for later when you’ve got some butter.
So what did I learn?
There is so much information out there on procrastination and time management (you could get quite distracted researching it if you tried!) But this is what I learnt:
- Look at what’s stopping you from getting started? Are those assumptions or beliefs helpful, true even? If not, ditch them and replace with something more helpful.
- Notice the pattern - is this a way of thinking or behaving that operates in other parts of life? Could you “fake it until you make it”, and try a different approach for size?
- Test out your intuition. Practice making decisions, and then move to action!
- Thinking is not always the same as doing!
- Limit distractions - they are false rewards.
- When you do get started, do the tricky tasks at a time of day when you have most energy, and whilst being persistent, don’t sweat it: 90-120 minute chunks of concentration seem to work.
So there we are, I’ve done it, quizzical musings perhaps, but it’s out there! And the next one? Well, give me a few weeks…...