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Self Management

Procrastination: Conquering the Inner Demon

Do you find yourself waiting until the last minute to finish critical documentation for training? Are classes often scheduled and announced just in the nick of time? Is the production of your training calendar a quarterly nightmare? If you recognize any of these scenarios, procrastination may be sneaking into your life, stealing valuable time and eroding your productivity. Procrastination is the habitual delay in starting or seeing a task through to conclusion. But is this always a bad thing to do? The word "habitual" is the key. Most of us procrastinate to varying degrees. Occasional delay on less important tasks that have no harmful effects to you or to others is no problem. However, once delay becomes a habit and creeps into all areas of your life, it undermines your ability to function effectively or keep your promises.

The Seductiveness of Delay

Procrastination is seductive because there are short-term positive rewards that come from putting things off. When you have too much to do, deciding not to do any of them can reduce the immediate tension and stress you were feeling. There is a natural tendency to avoid unpleasant things. Putting them off (even though you will have to do them later) means, at the very least, that you do not have to face them right now. Plus, if you are lucky, they might go away or someone else will do them.

Procrastinating can also be exciting. It causes crises and the adrenaline rush that goes along with them. Waiting until the last possible minute is really similar to pitting yourself against the odds. You are gambling that not only will you win out over stress, fear, hunger and fatigue, but that the mail will arrive on time, the copier will not break, the other person is not out sick, and that the tire will not go flat as you race to your 8:00 o'clock meeting. When you make it, you probably feel high and slightly euphoric. These are intense feelings, much more so than the quiet, calm satisfaction produced when the project is completed early.

Waiting until the last minute to start a difficult task can also be used as a defense for poor performance. You can always claim that it would have been better had there been more time. It can shield you from the consequences that you expect to occur after the project is completed. For example, not accepting a high visibility special assignment will shield you from the consequences of, a) being in the limelight and possibly failing, or, b) doing well and being offered more challenge than you can handle.

Breaking the Cycle

In trying to overcome procrastination do not decide all at once that you will never do it again. That is like deciding to climb Mount Everest next week without ever having been rock climbing. Be reasonable and be fair to yourself. Start slowly. Give yourself time to break a habit that has become ingrained and automatic.

For large, complicated or time-consuming projects such as formulating a budget, writing a new procedural manual, organizing a fundraiser or learning Chinese, break it into small, manageable parts. Smaller tasks are attractive because they are short, easy and produce immediate gratification. Keep in mind that all projects, no matter how massive, are only a series of small items reassembled.

Another effective technique is to make a voluntary commitment to someone else. Allowing others to become involved in your efforts by reviewing your progress, helping you set deadlines or evaluating your results, can be very helpful. Often we are too close to the situation to be objective. Your concerns, fears and anxieties become secondary to fulfilling the expectations of the people you respect and trust.

Remember to reward yourself for good behavior. Punishing yourself for goofing off is not nearly as effective. Reward yourself at milestones in the process, not just at the completion. Rewards can be anything you like to do. They can be simple and inexpensive, but they should be things that are important to you. Reading for pleasure, relaxing, participating in sports, visiting friends, traveling, going to dinner, and exercising can all be used as rewards. At work, doing the portion of your job that you find enjoyable can be a reward. If you regularly work overtime, go home on time, or take a lunch break instead of eating in a rush at your desk.

When you find yourself blocked, unable to start a task and you have tried everything else, ask yourself: "Is there anything, no matter how small, that I am willing to do?" When you find and start that small thing, you are no longer procrastinating.

Odette Pollar is a nationally known speaker, author, and consultant. President of the management consulting firm, Smart Ways to Work based in Oakland, CA, her most recent book is Surviving Information Overload. Email to share your comments, questions and suggestions: odette@SmartWaysToWork.com. Visit us at: www.smartwaystowork.com call: 1-800-599-8463.

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