My two sons are seemingly on opposite ends of the procrastination spectrum. And for homework assignments, this led to some interesting conversations (and parenting challenges) when they were growing up.
The older of the two is what his mother would call “the classic procrastinator”: he knew how much time he was willing to dedicate to a project or assignment and would wait until the last day before it was due, invest that much time, and turn the work in the following day.
He would argue: Why let an assignment interfere with all the other things in life that he wanted to do? Just wait until the last possible moment and buckle-down and get it done.
The younger of the two was the extreme opposite: as soon as an assignment was given, he would start and complete the work as soon as possible – regardless of due date. Three hours, three days, or three weeks; didn’t matter. He could not stand the idea of an assignment hanging over his head.
He would justify: Why let an assignment interfere with all the other things in life that he wanted to do? Just buckle-down and get it done, don’t leave it hanging over his head – and then he could do all things he wanted to do.
Now isn’t that an interesting – both justified their actions with the same argument “Why let an assignment interfere with all the other things in life that they wanted to do?”, but with dramatically different approaches to getting things done.
Which are you? Are you on one extreme or the other? Or closer to the middle?
The truth is that we all procrastinate at something. Yes, some of us seem to procrastinate more often than others, but actually no one is immune from procrastination.
And to be clear – when the younger son chose to act on the assignment, by default there were other things that were not getting done, but his mom did always inwardly smile because there would be no last-minute project heroics…
Let’s look at a few common scenarios where many of us find ways to procrastinate:
Does it matter how visible the assignment, or the task is for you? Do you jump on some things and delay on others?
Highly visible, all bosses watching – jump on it; No/low visibility, necessary work, but nobody watching – delay
Involvement of Others
Does it matter who else is required to deliver on the assignment, or the task?
Extrovert + high team involvement – jump on it; Extrovert + single-person task – delay
Introvert + high team involvement – delay; Introvert + single-person task – jump on it
Does it matter who the task is for? A peer – delay. Your boss’s boss’s boss – all over it.
What about your familiarity with the subject matter? Unfamiliar – delay. Familiar – on it. Too familiar – delay.
Size / Scope
The size of the task can also influence our willingness to get started. So big and complicated that there seems to be no way to get it done – procrastinate. Small, simple, compact – get it done!
Sometimes the payoff on completion dictates our enthusiasm for not only completing, but also getting started. Big reward – start, continue, complete in record time! Small / no reward – slow to start, stutter/sputter along the way, hard to complete.
You will most likely identify with one – or more than one of these – as a cause for you to procrastinate. You may use a different set of descriptive terms – avoid, put off, prioritize lower, move out due to timing/resources/seasonality to justify why you are procrastinating. Regardless of the (weasel) words you choose, they all yield the same outcome: delayed action / delayed results.
Put First Things First
Stephen Covey’s renowned bestselling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: powerful lessons in personal change. Re-read the subtitle of Covey’s book. What does that mean for you? These 7 habits didn’t come naturally to Covey’s effective people! They, just like you, had to unlearn old habits and learn new habits.
They changed; they learned, failed, practiced, and (mostly) mastered these habits. There is hope for each of us! Let’s celebrate that!
Habit 3 from Covey’s book is Put First Things First.
The key takeaway from this habit is that we can’t get it all done. You will need to prioritize your list so that you are completing the important items first.
If you view TimeGainer as a silver bullet that will allow you to do everything on your to-do list, your dream board, and your honey-do list – stop right here. You’ll be disappointed. You can’t do it all. No matter how hard you try or how bad you want to.
All the productivity tools / tips / techniques combined don’t produce any more time. What they do is free up time to do more of what you want and need to do.
The dirty little secret? Putting First Things First is selective procrastination.
You prioritize, focus on, and do those things that are most important to you, your family, your team, your customers, and your community. You delay, avoid focus, and selectively don’t do those things that are not.
Let that sink in.
We encourage you to channel your best inner procrastinator, but only those things that are not and should not be a priority!
Your goal is not to get everything done. How liberating is that?
Your goal is to get the most important things done.
Covey gave the Important vs Urgent matrix for assisting us in setting priorities. The top row (quadrants 1 & 2) should be your prioritization focus.
Covey’s Urgent vs Important matrix
Quadrant 2 – (Important, Not Urgent Activities1) Proactive, Quality Time
Covey challenges us to answer the following 2 questions to help set our top quadrant 2 activities:
- What is the one activity that, if you did superbly well and consistently would have significant positive results in your personal life?
- What is the one activity, that if you did superbly well and consistently, would have significant and positive results in your professional life?
The answers to these two questions are critical “important, not urgent” activities. To allow more time for “Quality Time” activities, you must reduce time from activities that fall into “Deception” or “Escape” quadrants (3 & 4).
You must act on them. They don’t act on you.
The value of the matrix is that it helps us see how importance and urgency affect the choices we make about how to spend our time. It allows us to see where we spend most of our time and why we spend it there. We can see the degree to which urgency dominates is the degree to which importance does not.
Doing more things faster is no substitute for doing the right things.
When there’s no gardener, there’s no garden. Identify what’s important and focus your efforts on helping it grow.
Eliminating the Noise
James Clear, the best-selling author of Atomic Habits recounted a story of Mike Flint, pilot for Warren Buffet. Buffet is consistently ranked among the wealthiest people in the world. Out of all the pure investors in the 20th century, Buffett was the most successful.
Here’s the simple 3-step productivity strategy that Warren Buffett uses to help his employees determine their priorities and actions.
Mike Flint’s Story
Mike Flint was Buffett’s personal airplane pilot for 10 years. (Flint has also flown four US Presidents, so I think we can safely say he is good at his job.) According to Flint, he was talking about his career priorities with Buffett when his boss asked the pilot to go through a 3-step exercise.
STEP 1: Buffett started by asking Flint to write down his top 25 career goals. So, Flint took some time and wrote them down. (Note: you could also complete this exercise with goals for a shorter timeline. For example, write down the top 25 things you want to accomplish this week.)
STEP 2: Then, Buffett asked Flint to review his list and circle his top 5 goals. Again, Flint took some time, made his way through the list, and eventually decided on his 5 most important goals.
STEP 3: At this point, Flint had two lists. The 5 items he had circled were List A and the 20 items he had not circled were List B.
Flint confirmed that he would start working on his top 5 goals right away. And that’s when Buffett asked him about the second list, “And what about the ones you didn’t circle?”
Flint replied, “Well, the top 5 are my primary focus, but the other 20 come in a close second. They are still important, so I’ll work on those intermittently as I see fit. They are not as urgent, but I still plan to give them a dedicated effort.”
To which Buffett replied, “No. You’ve got it wrong, Mike. Everything you didn’t circle just became your Avoid-At-All-Cost list. No matter what, these things get no attention from you until you’ve succeeded with your top 5.”
Use Procrastination as a Tool
Our goal is not to “fix” or eliminate procrastination. We want you to become very powerful at using it as a tool to help set your focus and guide your actions.
It is so easy to generalize and say, “I’m a procrastinator” – what is probably more accurate is, “I do what I want”. The key is being clear on those things that are important to do and then setting yourself up to do those things most of the time.
Covey’s matrix gives us a great methodology for doing just that – is it important? Is it urgent (to me)? Start HERE! Those things that are not important and/or not urgent may never get your attention or focus. And the longer they go without either attention or focus, the less often they will raise their hand in your prioritization process.
Buffet’s 3 steps process helps keep you focused on the short list of things that are critical for your success – why focus anywhere else? Starving low priority items attention is the only way to give important items the attention they deserve.
Changing Your Point of View
Let’s go back to look at a couple of the common scenarios and see what changes we can make to help eliminate unnecessary procrastination, Familiarity & Size/Scope:
Procrastination tends to happen when we are either unfamiliar (where do I start?) or too familiar (mundane, rote, lost its luster).
Don’t know where to start – or death by a thousand cuts. Neither seems like a formula for success!
Too familiar – fun for the first 1000 times, but no longer? Start by answering the questions:
- if I were planning to teach this to someone else – how would I do it?
- If I had never done this before – what would fascinate me about the process?
- If I were going to approach this from a completely different angle – where would I start?
- When was the last time I reworked the process? Am I efficient, effective, and complete in my delivery?
Unfamiliar – start by answering the question, “What is the first thing that I need to learn, know, do to get started?”
By breaking it down to the just the first thing – not all the things – I can get started. When I complete that first thing, I ask the next question, “What is the next thing that I need to learn, know, do to get started?”
Lack of momentum is the biggest root cause of procrastination. Once in motion most of us continue to stay in motion – we simply need to get started!
Size / Scope
If a task is so big and complicated that there seems to be no way to get it done – the approach is very similar to an unfamiliar task. Break it down into small, simple, compact set of deliverables or tasks to get it done.
A few questions to get you started:
- Can I break this down into discreet deliverables or outputs that I can do – or assign out to others?
- Are there specific deliverables that have fixed dates?
- Are there specific deliverables that need to be completed first due to dependencies for other deliverables?
Then follow the same process as for the unfamiliar task:
- “What is the first thing that I need to learn, know, do to get started?”
- “What is the next thing that I need to learn, know, do to get started?”
Don’t look at productivity tools as a “fix” for procrastination. Procrastination is not the issue – focus is. There will never be enough time to get it all done.
Ensuring that you have a clear focus, and an action plan will be much more productive for you than worrying about a past history of failure due to procrastination!