By Paige Lanier and Frank Niles, Ph.D.//October 2, 2023//
By: Paige Lanier and Frank Niles, Ph.D.//October 2, 2023//
We’ve all experienced it, staring at a task, knowing it needs to be done but somehow can’t muster the drive to begin. This phenomenon is procrastination, which is simply the act of delaying or postponing starting a task even though we know it’s not in our best interest. Nearly everyone has experienced this at some point. While procrastination might seem trivial in the short term, its chronic form can detrimentally affect productivity, mental well-being and personal growth.
So, what causes us to procrastinate? Here are a few reasons.
One reason is task complexity. When confronted with intricate tasks or one that pushes us out of our proverbial “comfort zone,” it’s often easier on our ego to avoid starting. The immensity of some goals can be daunting, leading us to question, “Why kick off a project when I’m uncertain about where to begin, or fear we can’t finish it satisfactorily?”
Conversely, some find day-to-day tasks challenging to complete. Mundane activities, such as taking out the trash or washing dishes, or at the office, reconciling invoices, or budgeting, are essential but not particularly enjoyable, and there are no immediate consequences for not doing them.
Another factor is time mismanagement. Many of us dive into tasks without much planning or prioritization. Consequently, we end up zeroing in on tasks that seem pressing but may not actually be important. As Steven Covey famously noted, “Most of us spend too much time on what is urgent and not enough time on what is important.” This leads us to focus on solving immediate needs rather than driving long-term value.
For many, a lack of discipline leads to procrastination. Recall Aristotle’s words here, “We become what we repeatedly do,” Research highlights that discipline is paramount, even more so than motivation, when it comes to achieving our objectives. The disconnect between wanting to achieve something and actual follow-through is both a significant cause and outcome of procrastination.
Finally, fear of failure also leads to procrastination. This fear is particularly paralyzing for perfectionists, who let their quest for perfection stall their progress. An experience (Frank) comes to mind when, while working on my doctoral dissertation, I felt overwhelmed by the minutiae. I needed everything to be perfect. My advisor offered me advice which I remember to this day, “A good dissertation is a done dissertation.”
There are numerous negative effects of procrastination. For example, delaying starting a task diminishes the quality of our output, especially if facing a tight deadline. As a consequence, procrastination increases our stress levels, and also negatively impacts our professional reputation.
For those struggling with procrastination, consider the following:
First, it’s important to set clear goals. As Zig Ziglar put it, “Lack of direction, not lack of time, is the problem. We all have 24-hour days.” One needs a destination to start the journey. We find Marc Ephron’s method of goal setting highly effective: start with a small number of goals and keep them SIMple: Specific, Important and Measurable.
Next, to make the most of your time, follow Mark Twain’s advice, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning.” In other words, tackle the most demanding tasks when your energy is high, and leave more simple tasks for later in the day.
Break large projects into manageable chunks. This helps us get started and gives us motivation and structure to keep moving. This is like saving a fraction of your paycheck consistently. Over time, these small efforts compound, leading to significant achievement.
Effective planning is critical for beating procrastination. A principle we share with clients is, “Don’t start your day by making a plan, rather start with a plan already in place.” Do your planning the night before. That way you can kick off the day with clarity and purpose.
We need to talk a little about distractions. In our 24-hour connected world, it’s easy to let the next video or story derail our efforts to be important tasks. Simple solutions such as turning off phone notifications, avoiding personal emails during the workday, and deleting game apps, can help us stay on task.
Finally, prioritization tools can also help in determining what demands immediate attention. Tools like the ABC Method or the Eisenhower Matrix (Google both), when used diligently, can help us focus our attention on what truly matters. Delegating work to others is an especially powerful strategy that gets overlooked but lightens your workload if used properly.
At some point, we all fall prey to procrastination. However, if it becomes a habit, it can seriously hinder both our personal and professional growth and impact. By understanding the causes of procrastination and employing the strategies discussed above, you’ll lay the foundation for a high-impact life, both at work and at home.
(Paige Lanier is a Senior Analyst at BSM Partners where she supports both Product Innovation and Business Transformation practices. A graduate of the University Arkansas, she enjoys hiking the trails and skiing the slopes in the mountains above her home in Denver, Colorado.)
(Frank Niles, Ph.D. is Principal Business Psychologist at BSM Partners and leads the Business Transformation and Leadership practice. In his spare time, he cycles and rock climbs.)