Why do we Put off Tasks?

We've all experienced this at some point or another — we put off writing a report, submitting a budget plan, speeding up a project where the timeline is expanding, or completing an important piece of research. These are examples of things we would rather do later.

Dr. Margaret J. King describes this as the procrastination syndrome and offers ideas on how to identify the signs, read the symptoms, along with treatment suggestions. Though the article is seventeen years old, it's still very, if not more, relevant today. She says, especially when we are facing a demanding task we:

begin to find many unrelated things that urgently need attention: re-reading old memos, cleaning out drawers, pruning files, calling people you haven't spoken to in months — all as you are waiting for the perfect time to begin the work at hand. 

Most of us recognize that such activities are a stall against work we know needs to be done; but we aren't motivated to either begin or finish. These busy activities are clues that you’re reluctant to get on with the job because of some discomfort with the task.

Prompting action in others who may also be suffering from self-imposed delays may figure in getting closure on your own work.  Doubts about the value of the solution to solve a given problem is a frequent cause of the inability to get mobilized.  But few people apply their analytical abilities to recognize this fact or to address it early in the solution-finding process.

These roadblocks have a few things in common, she says:

it's usually a combination of factors: 1) a challenge to your ability or expertise, which 2) imposes an unwelcome demand on your time, abilities, emotional reserves, or resources.  Much of procrastination is a species of protest against these demands and resentment about the fact that forces from the outside have the power to enforce those demands if they aren't met from your own resources.

Dr. King is Director, Cultural Studies & Analysis in Philadelphia. The organization she founded studies culture to identify “cultural imperatives,” the software of the mind that drives beliefs and behaviors.

Her analysis of our procrastination notes that along with thinking the task will somehow be simpler later:

the theory might promise a number of altered conditions: you will be smarter, or have better resources, or have more help, or, the top fantasy, given enough water under the bridge, the effort might prove to be unnecessary after all.

This last bit does happen, though I would not count on it happening for the reasons Dr. King outlined above — a hit to self-esteem and decreased confidence bringing the front. When we put things off habitually we also increase our levels of stress and negativity:

Emotional, mental, and social discomfort come from a sense of inadequacy that says that the assignment is somehow beyond your ability, that the results won't be acceptable, or that the outcome will cause other problems.

We can solve big problems by thinking small. First, we just need to begin, separate each part of the problem so we can define the details — what's the challenge? What are the guidelines, time lines, formats, dependencies, etc. — do the hardest part first, says Dr. King.

Chipping away at a task we've been putting off in small increments, adding work we like to do in between, and noting our progress is a good way to use momentum to keep us going. Project managers recognize the importance of having a progress sheet to stay on top of a team's work. It's a good idea to borrow from their methods.

When we need to be creative on demand, or we start with a blank slate, we should rely on a spine. In The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp defines the spine as the statement we make to ourselves outlining our intentions for the work. It is our private tool to answer one key question — What am I trying to say? Tharp says:

energy and time are finite resources; conserving them is very important. Economy of purpose and execution is an actionable way to think about simplicity.

[…] developing a spine is the first step in building your metaphor quotient.

And shares a series of useful exercises to develop our metaphor quotient.

Dr. Margaret King also says we should take a closer look at our plans:

“Assess the energy requirements of the job to see if there’s a more efficient way to satisfy them.  Different tools, even a different team, could be the answer.  Concentrate on the basics, not on a perfect execution.

Some jobs just don't have enough reward in them to justify the effort.”

Learning to delegate is one of the top issues entrepreneurs and high functioning professionals face. We do care about what we produce, and it's not as easy as just asking someone else to do something, we need to be specific about what we're asking so we can be satisfied with the results. Dr. King says we should be honest with ourselves:

“Anything that’s not using your best talents and could be more easily taken care of by another should be reassigned. Two laws of good management pertain here: assign the best person to the job and recognize that all achievements are outcomes of time awareness.”

We can save time and conserve energy when we ask for help. We also need to be more careful about how we spend our time. “Time is the raw material of creation,” says Kevin Ashton:

“Wipe away the magic and myth of creating and all that remains is work: the work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating. Creating consumes. It is all day, every day. It knows neither weekends nor vacations. It is not when we feel like it. It is habit, compulsion, obsession, vocation.

The common thread that links creators is how they spend their time. No matter what you read, no matter what they claim, nearly all creators spend nearly all their time on the work of creation. There are few overnight successes and many up-all-night successes.

[…] Creators do not ask how much time something takes but how much creation it costs.”

Reddit CEO Yishan Wong considers time our most important and critical resource. Answering on important life lessons on Quora, he says:

“Time is highly limited, uniquely limited, and equitably limited.

[…] What this means is that along with other resources, time is also always expended in the performance of any activity, that strategies which save or compress the amount of time needed to perform an activity (e.g. speed) are especially valuable, that few people are born with significant advantages in this resource compared to another, and that tradeoffs involving the exchange of most commodity resources (e.g. money) for time are almost always a good idea.

Guard your time jealously, and spend it carefully on the most important things. Likewise, it's crucial to figure out as early as possible what you consider the most important things to you in life, because if you greatly mis-prioritize, you may grieve later on for your lost time and life.  No pressure.”

Procrastination calls us to learn to make trade-offs for performance, and clarify our attitude towards the act of creation itself.


[image via Pixabay CC0 Public Domain]