More than anything else, perfectionist and self-critical attitudes about ourselves are what kills our productivity. These attitudes are most often revealed in the form of procrastination, but procrastination is not the demon; it is the messenger.
Neil Fiore, in his book, The Now Habit, defines procrastination as:
A mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.
Procrastination, then, is not the problem but a symptom of perfectionism (fear of failure) and self-criticism. Procrastination is not a sign of laziness or of not being motivated but a way of protecting ourselves from perceived inadequacies.
What is really important to understand is that you don’t have to feel like a perfectionist or someone who is extremely self-critical for these traits to affect your work in the form of procrastination; which is why procrastination is such a tough nut to crack. However, if you accept that perfectionism and self-criticism are in fact the enemy, then you will have targets at which to take aim and a fighting chance to become much more effective in your work.
The best way to recognize these issues is to relate them to actual work that you have been putting off.
For example, let’s say that you need to do some research and report back to your team about the latest collaboration tools on the market. Here are a couple of approaches:
Approach 1) You know that this is a cutting edge subject and that there are hundreds of tools on the market. Right away you may be overwhelmed by the scope of the task because of the expectation you have on yourself to somehow get to know about those hundreds of tools (perfectionism). So you decide to put that daunting task off until you have time to put in the kind of effort required.
Approach 2) You realize that this is a cutting edge subject and that there are hundreds of tools on the market so you have a quick discussion with your team about how much time and effort you should put into the project, or if that is not possible, you frame it in some way; either by deciding how many hours you will devote to the task or by giving yourself a deadline by which time you will complete a comparison of the three or four most popular collaboration tools. You devote two hours on Thursday for the task.
Approach 1) at the appointed time you set for working on this project you wonder as to whether comparing just three or four tools is enough to satisfy the team (self-criticism). You decide to wait on the project and bring up this issue at the next meeting.
Approach 2) at the appointed time you set for working on this project you create an outline to further frame the project and decide about how much time you will devote to each section including time for review. You do this work enthusiastically because you know that time spent planning out the stages prevents the feeling of being overwhelmed. You are aware that you can’t possibly know everything about all the collaboration tools on the market so you accept your limitations (time, resources and knowledge of the subject) and get on with the task at hand.
There are many opportunities to procrastinate further down the road. The trick is to familiarize yourself with how you procrastinate in order to recognize when you are doing it – and then come to terms with putting the need to complete the task above your pathology (self-criticism and perfectionism).
Since the title of this blog is working according to JIT, let me describe some of my methodology for avoiding procrastination. Note that I am not infallible and I don’t follow my own advice to 100% because I recognize that I cannot control my entire world. But they are the guidelines that I follow as carefully as possible, and they anchor my working habits – which improve on a daily basis, just like yours can.
Here are my 10 Golden Rules for not avoiding work:
- I don’t set deadlines for tasks that don’t absolutely have to get done.
- I make sure that if I do set a deadline for a task that I honor the deadline or move the deadline. Since I work with digital tools this means that I don’t let things turn “red”.
- I recognize that my integrity is at stake each time I move a deadline, but just as quickly I forgive myself for not making the deadline because it is the only way to learn from it.
- Even though I have a gazillion things I would like to get done ( a slight exaggeration though it’s in the hundreds in my Outlook tasks) I also limit myself to setting deadlines for tasks which I consider to be possible without a lot of stress, always taking into consideration that if I overdo it I’ll abandon my system.*
- I don’t put tasks in my calendar unless I am CERTAIN that I will do it on that day and time. Instead I block out daily recurring task time as “Tasks – moveable” in my calendar. That means if someone wants to schedule a meeting in my calendar which conflicts with that task time they have to move that task time. I If there are no other availabilities for my task time they have to choose another day or discuss with me.
- Start small with 30-45minute bocks of task time just to get into the habit. 1½ hours is optimal because it gives you enough time to get lost in your work. Research shows that it takes at least fifteen minutes to get into the zone so you want to stretch that zone out as far as possible. You have to gauge what length of time is appropriate for yourself.
- Guard your task time from interruptions as if it were a meeting with someone important. It is!
- Schedule your less important tasks (80% if you think in terms of the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule) to just before they need completion. This may sound counterintuitive but it actually forces you to take stock of how much time you are willing to devote to its completion while preventing perfectionism issues.
- Don’t be afraid of spending a lot more time prioritizing and framing your tasks. Eisenhower once said: Plans are nothing. Planning is everything. We so badly want to get things done that we risk effectiveness for efficiency. Just as form follows function, efficiency follows effectiveness, and in order to be most effective we must prioritize and plan what we do to the detail that is required. No more and no less.
- Habits are not formed in a day. The reason we procrastinate is because we have procrastination habits that have cues, routines and rewards. In order to beat your procrastination habits you must examine these elements. Recognize what triggers your procrastination, what you do to avoid the pain of self-criticism and perfectionism and finally how you are rewarded for your avoidance.
*I use several views of tasks in order to separate my wants from my needs.