Business Page – January 21st, 2001

 

Curing Procrastination: Just Do It!

Introduction

Most people in management can relate to the frustration of expecting a task to be completed only to find that it is nowhere close to being finished when the due date arrives. In many companies more time is spent planning how to do rather than doing. The root cause is that inherent human weakness, procrastination which has done more to retard achievement in society than any other deficiency we possess.

Too often we are caught trying to do last week or last month’s work today resulting in two hour tasks being done in a month and two hours- one month of procrastination and two hours of actually getting the job done. The problem of procrastination has been psychoanalysed to death but the sneaker company, Nike, captured the essence of the solution with its once popular slogan “Just Do It!”.

Both in our personal lives as well as in our working environment the examples of procrastination are simply too numerous to mention. Minutes of meetings, rather than being written up later that same day or in the evening, have to wait until just before the following meeting. Educational assignments are seldom completed within the first set deadline, while the completed marks are sometimes communicated to the student long after the commencement of the following semester when they become entirely academic. Some newspapers contributors and columnists are not immune from this malady adding to the poor editor’s already difficult task.

At the national level we see the deleterious effects of procrastination as we review how the political parties and the National Assembly dilly-dallied over implementing the measures agreed under the Herdmanston Agreement. Insufficiently thought out constitutional measures have come back to haunt us with often serious consequences.

It was only a couple of days ago as I was driving with a young client of our firm that he asked whether he could discuss with me a personal problem with which he had tried unsuccessfully to grapple. On enquiry he identified it as procrastination. Not having done much by way of psychology I found myself repeating the IKE slogan - “Why don’t you just do it?”

Nike Misstep?

These words are profound in their simplicity and no psychologist or psychiatrist has managed to achieve the results that the application of this as a doctrine can. As an aside, one cannot help but wonder whether Nike’s downward trend has not coincided with the tinkering that seems an inseparable part of the restlessness of American culture which compelled management to experiment with new slogans when “Just Do It!” certainly did it for the company.

Consciousness

None of the new slogans has embedded itself into the consciousness in a similar manner and in fact this writer has difficulty recalling any of the new offerings. If everyone involved in an organisation, whether it is the biggest business enterprise or the local Parent Teachers’ Association, were to embrace the attitude of doing it rather than meeting or thinking about it the entity would be unstoppable in achieving its objectives. A bookmark handed out to our clients and friends two Christmases ago carried the same simplicity. It quoted a Major General in the US Army who said: “True genius lies not in doing extraordinary things but in doing the ordinary things extra-ordinarily well’ It is really funny how many people ask the question “but how do you do it?” Again the answer is simple “ Rather than spending time worrying and thinking about a task, start setting out on paper as much as you know about the subject. Sooner rather than later, you will have had the job completed without even thinking about it. Just try it!

Core

The obligatory analysis of the procrastination issue reveals that disorganisation is often at the core of the problem. Many people fail to make a proper distinction between what is urgent and what is priority. Most procrastinators tend to deal with those matters with which they are most comfortable, which are easiest or which they find interesting. This approach results in more important tasks being sacrificed thereby creating a backlog that cries out for action.

Confusing Mess

Old and new tasks all come together in a confusing mess. They are all instantly urgent and current issues are ignored so that urgent ones can be attended to, in a sense making the urgent become priority. Three categories then emerge which are almost indistinguishable from each other with all demanding attention. There is now priority/urgent, priority/ non-urgent, and non-priority urgent but the procrastinating individual has not changed.

Firefighting

The non-urgent, non-priority assignments which are in the comfort zone are still the attraction and will get that individual’s attention. This results in that mode of operation which could be likened to firefighting where only the urgent is being responded to with no proper priorities being voluntarily established. This generates additional pressure on the individual who then seeks refuge and stress relief in those tasks which are easy and neither urgent nor priority.

“Something Else Came Up”

The escapism is symbolised by the “something else came up” excuse which managers so often frustratingly are faced with. Usually close scrutiny of the “something else” finds that it could be a combination of numerous unimportant activities or may even be something that the procrastinating individual cannot even satisfactorily identify. Distraction from the important and forgetfulness are trademarks of the procrastinator arising tasks being lumped together into an unmanageable chunk instead of being broken into discrete achievable steps.

Deadlines

Large tasks tend to be overwhelming and if mileposts are established with firm timelines the intimidating nature of the assignment can be neutralised. The so-called Law of Expanded Time states that “work will fill the time available to complete it.” Managers should understand the seemingly simplistic truism that making less time available to complete a task will result in less time being spent completing it. The lesson here is that deadlines are important because they establish a goal towards which one can work. Is it strange that things without a precise completion date drag on or never get done? Experience has proven time and again: Most definitely not! So deadlines are essential.

Conclusion

In every aspect of business, vision, determination and persistence must take precedence over procrastination if any level of excellence is to be achieved. Why is it such a common occurrence that unions and management almost always wait for agreements to expire before negotiations commence? Is it not counter-productive to have to negotiate under the gun of unreasonableness because each side is blaming the other for expiry of the deadline? This is one of the most glaring and idiotic examples of procrastination in the business world and is unfathomable since union agreements have a specific life. Of course my editor will hope that this writer has taken note of the contents of this article. I must close now to meet my submission deadline with a promise to do better. Maybe next week!