In one of the most famous TED talks of all time, Tim Urban describes procrastination as that Instant Gratification Monkey inside our brain that manages to overrule, time and time again, what the rational decision-maker, another of our brain dwellers, is rightfully pointing out we should be getting on with at the time.
Why embark on with an arduous task, when it is so much better to scroll through social media, go for a snack, or complete other jobs, even if we know full well that there is another equally important task still unchecked on our to-do list? Why wait for the Panic Monster (this one lives in our brain too by the way) to strike before we tackle that outstanding job, which has now become urgent since its deadline is fast approaching?
So why is the Instant Gratification Monkey so persuasive, and how can we steer clear of it at work to ensure we do not fall into the procrastination trap?
Why we take the procrastination road
Understanding why we procrastinate and what procrastination looks like at work can go a long way to helping us avoid it. The imaginary dwellers inside our heads so aptly brought to life by Tim Urban represent the eternal conflict between our present and future selves. What we want to do now because it is easy to accomplish and will reap immediate benefits versus what we should be doing by the end of the day, week, even month, which will also reap benefits but in the future.
At work, this translates into finishing off tasks that are less strenuous to accomplish or else which require our immediate attention but putting off that phone call that will need more thought and negotiation from my side to make it successful in terms of the intended goal. Or it could be that report I need to present at the end of the month, which I’ve known about for weeks, but have continued to put off day after day by leaving it until last on my daily or weekly to-do list.
Eventually, the day before the deadline, when there is no more time left to delay or postpone making that phone call or writing that report, panic kicks in, and I grab the phone or start writing furiously away until the phone call is made or the report finally written and handed in by the due deadline.
Trying to steer away from the procrastination road
The most difficult part is figuring out how not to procrastinate before we start. However daunting a task is, however overwhelming and intimidating it may feel, we need to learn how to motivate ourselves to start and complete it within a reasonable amount of time.
In the work environment, the following strategies will enable us to favour accomplishment over procrastination:
Set weekly goals
This is where the bigger picture unfolds. We all start our week knowing what the coming days have in store either through routine or else because our agendas are already giving us an idea of what will need to be done during the week.
The tasks we tend to procrastinate about may already appear. I know that an important report is due this week, or the week after because it is already slotted in my agenda and can prepare for it.
Divide into daily to-do lists
This is what happens in between scheduled meetings and appointments, where the necessary administration, research, phone calls, filing, and creative input need to be slotted in. And this is where that important report that needs to be compiled is further broken down into manageable daily tasks, such as collecting data, interviews, research, prior to the actual writing process and presentation.
Manage your time
Setting to-do lists without the necessary time frame in which to complete them is self-defeating. At the end of the day, I need to review what has not been done, even if because of unforeseen matters that may have cropped up and disrupted the schedule. This is when at the end of the day, unfinished jobs need to be brought forward to the next day’s work plans as priorities.
This is the part where self-control comes into play. Even incoming work emails can serve as a distraction because I am tempted to check them out. A noisy environment can also be counter-productive. I do not need to join every conversation taking place around me, even if work-related. And more importantly, that mobile phone on my desk should be set to silent so that those generally unimportant notifications do not distract me.
If it is time to start compiling that report, then that is the most important thing to do, and that email notification should be ignored however tempting it may be to read its contents. Let me see if I can starve my distraction and feed my focus!
Reward your progress
Determined focus and planning will generally result in jobs that are completed faster during the day. If I have managed to put together all the research I need to compile my report, then it is ok to stop and have a cup of coffee. It will serve to recharge me for the rest of the day’s tasks, and most of all, it will keep that Instant Gratification Monkey happy!
Discuss it with the team
Sometimes, and despite all good intentions, my weekly goals become difficult to meet. There can be various reasons for this, such as too much work, tasks that are too daunting, or else work that crops up urgently, disrupting previously set to-do lists.
Discussing it with the team or with management will surely help. If it is impossible to compile a report because of repeated problems that crop up related to clients that require immediate attention, then it is no longer an issue related to procrastination or productivity, but one that requires a different solution.
‘Procrastination is the thief of time’. Sticking to our weekly schedules and following the other strategies suggested above will ensure that it does not rob us of accomplishing our goals productively and within the set time frames.
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