How to avoid that last-minute rush

Procrastination causes stress and unhappiness - but there are ways to beat it, says Karen Hainsworth

Thursday 01 December 2005 01:00

Do you endlessly put off those important projects in favour of surfing the internet for the latest news on holiday deals or mindless trivia? Do you chose to sort out your filing cabinet before starting on an urgent job?

The reasons for putting off until tomorrow what we could very easily do today are myriad. They run the whole gamut from fear of failure to rebelliousness and include self-doubt and a need for attention. And even though procrastination can cause significant stress and unhappiness, we tend to think of it as part of our personality rather than a bad habit that we can break.

"To a certain extent it is a personality trait," says Cliff Arnall, a psychologist who specialises in increasing confidence and motivation at work. "Procrastination that results in a last minute rush before the deadline, that gets you super-motivated, mimics the adrenaline surge often sought by the addictive personality." And although this can be exciting he suggests it's a cover for a deeper discontent that might require a closer look.

But it's not only the adrenaline junkie who relegates those essential tasks in favour of familiar ones. And fear can play a major role. If you're relatively new to a job or have perfectionist tendencies this can easily cause hesitation. If you leave it too late to do a good job, for example, you can always blame it on lack of time rather than a perceived shortfall in your ability. It could however be a simple case of poor management. "A lot of people don't know about time management techniques," says Arnall.

"They see all jobs as the same level of importance so the urgent and important tasks get mixed in with the banal and non-essential."

According to Dr. William J Knaus, a psychologist and author of "Do It Now" (John Wiley & Sons), low frustration tolerance and discomfort dodging are common reasons for procrastination. "Some people live in fear of discomfort and are intolerant of their own bad feelings," he says. "People who procrastinate tend to be finely attuned to sensations of comfort and discomfort. They will do anything to avoid the anticipated source of discomfort and impulsively try to throw these feeling off through diversions. They're comfort junkies who demand that they get what they want without hassle."

But we can learn to overcome our tendency to postpone urgent work by developing and sustaining a "get-it-done" routine, says Knaus. "Plan for attaining what you desire and follow that plan," he says. Work to destroy the self-doubt that is often an important source of discomfort. And actively engage in activities you normally put off. You'll probably find they're not nearly as bad as you thought.

Arnall agrees that strategy and self-discipline are necessary to break the habit of procrastination. "Do a weekly plan last thing on a Friday," he says. "It stops you thinking about work over the weekend and ruining your fun. You can even code your list using ABC with A being the most important task so you know where to start first thing Monday morning. If it's a big project, break it down into smaller units and prioritise those. This makes it more manageable in your head and translates into practice."

If you can't even bring yourself to make a list and tick off your chores as you do them, chances are there's a much deeper source of dissatisfaction that's causing you to drag your feet. Perhaps you're unhappy in your job but don't want to admit it. Or maybe there's one element of your role that's a real bugbear. Change that and you could find a new level of motivation.

Whatever the scenario, it requires a long hard look at yourself and the inevitable question that we rarely ask. "Why am I really putting this off?"

Though it needs real discipline to breakthrough those delaying tactics you can use simple techniques. "I met a senior manager who had a bowl of smarties on his desk and whenever he finished a job he'd give himself a little treat," says Arnall. "Instead of beating himself up when he got it wrong he rewarded himself when he got it right. Another technique is to imagine the task completed before you start. Sense how you would feel and then use that feeling to pull you through." But be sure to imagine yourself doing that job today, not putting it off until tomorrow.

Further information: Cliff Arnall's website:

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