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Stuck on the Tracks?

By ClientWise | October 14, 2010

“Even if you are on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there”…Will Rogers

Procrastination is not a new problem. Writing in 800 B.C., the Greek poet Hesiod declared that “a man who puts off work is always at handgrips with ruin.” In the mid-1800’s, French author Victor Hugo (Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame) would tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he should stay inside to continue his writing.

However, it appears that procrastination is on the rise. According to Piers Steel, a business professor at the University of Calgary who has made a career out of the study of procrastination, the percentage of people who admit to difficulties with procrastination has quadrupled over the past 20 years. Research by Harvard behavioral economist David Laibson, revealed that American workers have foregone huge amounts of free money in matching 401(k) contributions…simply because they never got around to signing up! (Are your clients maxing out on theirs?)

Many of these insights, and much more, are contained in a very entertaining essay entitled “Later” by James Surowiecki in the 10/11/2010 issue of The New Yorker. In his essay, Mr. Surowiecki reviews recent procrastination research and explores what procrastination tells us about ourselves.

Speaking of procrastination research, one of the most prolific academics in the subject of procrastination is the previously mentioned Piers Steel. Dr. Steel also states, rather dogmatically, that… “People who procrastinate tend to under-perform in almost every other area of their life.” In fact, for those of you who want to get your own procrastination assessment, Dr. Steel invites you to participate on his website, Procrastination Central.

So…after all of this talk about procrastination…what does one actually do about it? According to Timothy Pychyl, professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa (Why are all the experts on procrastination from Canada?), there are a number of deliberate strategies that one can undertake to stay one step ahead of procrastination:

  1. Time Travel. Procrastinators discount future rewards as less important than the task at hand…especially if the current reward or activity is a more pleasant one. With “time travel” we use concrete mental images of the future…to represent the future as if it were happening right now. For example, for a person who is procrastinating on saving for retirement, it might help if they imagine, as vividly as possible, living on his/her potential retirement savings now. In other words, think about the task in the real context of the day, and think carefully about how these tasks would make you feel. Hopefully, the realization that the future image is not as rosy as one had imagined, would help a person to change his or her actions toward that activity or task today.
  2. Don’t give in to feeling good. Learn to recognize that we can have negative emotions without acting upon them. Stay put for a minute…don’t walk away. Don’t give in to “I’ll feel more like it tomorrow.” Begin a task today; even if it’s not completed…at least it’s a start.
  3. Reduce Uncertainty and Distractions. For important tasks, reduce all uncertainty about how to proceed. Shut off your email, close the blinds, wear ear-plugs…isolate yourself and make sure that the environment around you is strengthening your willpower to succeed.
  4. The Willpower Muscle. Research indicates that willpower is like a muscle, i.e. you can exhaust your willpower, and when you do, you lose your ability to regulate your behavior. One immediate method to strengthen your resolve is to remind yourself of your values; thereby fortifying your willpower.

Many of the solutions to procrastination amount to the re-framing of the task in front of you. In some ways, procrastination is influenced by the gap between effort (what is required now) and reward (what you harvest in the future, if ever). Narrowing this gap, by whatever means necessary, is the key to limiting procrastination. This is why it helps to focus on short-term projects with definite sections and deadlines, as opposed to open-ended tasks with distant time limits.

By the streets of “by and by” one arrives at the house of “Never.”…Cervantes

Topics: Procrastination

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