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Author: Elisa Warner
Eliminating technological distractions can help alleviate procrastination.
While procrastination is inevitable at times, habitual procrastination can interfere with personal performance and team goals. When a project consists of interdependent tasks, one person’s procrastination can cause a ripple effect that impacts a series of team deadlines.
Develop specific solutions to address a procrastinator’s unique circumstances, such as a plan to eliminate distraction, a system to prioritize tasks, or maintaining motivation and making challenging tasks more manageable.
Procrastination is a universal human condition. Whether it’s a child playing video games to avoid math homework or a CEO checking basketball scores online at work, everyone occasionally avoids tasks that make them uncomfortable in favor of those that offer immediate gratification.
Driven to Distraction
A major cause of procrastination is distraction. In our information-rich and technology-driven world, it is more difficult than ever to avoid distractions. The dread of confronting a blank screen can lead even the most disciplined person to indulge a whim to surf the web for music, news, or commerce. In addition to web surfing, today’s professionals can listen to MP3s or even view DVDs on their computers while they work. Email provides another powerful interruption, with computers constantly signaling the arrival of new messages.
Even those who don’t consciously wish to procrastinate can find that today’s technology-rich business environment creates a level of distraction that prevents the timely completion of tasks. In contrast to twenty years ago when people expected to wait for information to come via mail, today there is an expectation of instant access to information via email, Internet downloads and faxes. Staff members are pressured to repeatedly interrupt their work to respond to dozens of seemingly small requests, which breaks their concentration and momentum and can lead to procrastination.
Editor and writer Paul Ford has rebelled against the tidal wave of online information by practicing “Amish Computing.” In an attempt to resist the lure of the Internet and avoid bothersome interruptions from spammers, Ford chooses to work on a DOS-based word processing program—no “windows” in sight. His is a back to basics approach to eliminating the distractions brought on by technology. The intent is not to shut out the world (wide web) entirely, but to borrow the Amish philosophy of “push(ing) the worldly things away because they distract you from your goals.” While some may view switching to DOS as an extreme measure, procrastinators may wish to brainstorm ways to alter their surroundings in order to eliminate distraction.
Author Paul Graham observes that procrastinators choose to delay working on a given task for one of three reasons: in order to have leisure time, to work on a less critical task, or to tackle a task of higher importance. The key to smart or “good” procrastination is in choosing to avoid lesser tasks in favor of greater goals. In order to make these choices, you must be able to prioritize tasks.
A typical “To-Do” list includes a multitude of items ranging in importance from the banal to the crucial. Lesser responsibilities may be accomplished only when attempting to avoid an especially intimidating project. For example, at universities, it is widely known that dissertation candidates have the cleanest apartments—in staring at reams of research with dismay, they suddenly experience an urgent desire to organize their closets or rearrange furniture.
In evaluating the importance of a task, consider the following:
- The sphere of activity (e.g. home, work, personal growth, and so forth)
- The firmness of the deadline
- Whether other responsibilities are dependent upon the task’s completion
- The immediate benefit associated with its completion (or impending negative result of its neglect)
- The long-term benefit of its completion (or result of its neglect)
Through objective evaluation, rate each task in importance. Designate a time period for each sphere. Then, within each sphere of time, work from the top down. Try not to give in to the temptation to work on easy tasks first, as the difficult projects will only become more distasteful over time.
Motivation is a powerful factor in procrastination. On one hand, healthy challenges inspire us to achievement, and increase our confidence in our own abilities. Such challenges are considered “good” stress or eustress. Without these types of challenges, boredom and apathy ensue. Picture your first minimum-wage job—chances are, you arrived energetic and full of ideas only to find yourself on automatic pilot a year later. Challenge is essential for growth and inspires us to action.
While a degree of challenge is healthy, challenges that consistently exceed our abilities leave us drained. Overwhelming challenges contribute to “bad” stress or distress, threatening our health and emotional well-being. Whereas eustress motivates, distress frustrates, increasing the likelihood of procrastination.
Sometimes we recognize a project’s importance, but are so overwhelmed by the challenges of its complexity that we don’t know where to start. Utilize the following techniques to make large projects less intimidating and spur you to action:
- Break projects up into smaller, specific tasks — This technique is particularly helpful for complicated, multi-step projects. By breaking the project into baby steps, the journey seems less daunting.
- Set definite time parameters — Commit to performing the task for a certain time period rather than until completion. Agreeing to work on a project for an hour seems more manageable than taking on the weight of the entire assignment.
- Create incentives — Reward yourself for working on the project by creating incentives. Promise yourself recreation time or a special treat after working on the project or reaching a milestone.
Managing Habitual Procrastinators
While some degree of procrastination is unavoidable, habitual procrastinators may sabotage their professional activities by repeatedly missing deadlines and producing substandard work.
Team managers should consider approaching habitual procrastinators for self-assessment and discussion of the underlying causes of their behavior. Develop specific solutions to address their unique circumstances, such as a plan to eliminate distraction, a system to prioritize tasks, or a plan to make challenging tasks more manageable.
- Caruth, Donald L. and Gail D. Handlogten-Caruth. A Company’s Number One Killer: Procrastination. Innovative Leader #577, Vol. 12: 5. (May 2003)
- Ford, Paul. Follow-Up/Distraction. (2005)
- Ford, Paul. Guest Post: More on Distractions, from Paul Ford. (2005)
- Graham, Paul. Good and Bad Procrastination. (December 2005)
- Hamming, Richard. You and Your Research. (1986)
- Perry, John. Structured Procrastination. (1995)
- Wikipedia. Procrastination. (accessed January 2006)
- Wikipedia. Stress (Medicine). (accessed January 2006)
Elisa Warner develops research and training programs for non-profit and educational organizations. She is the former editor-in-chief of The Educational Facility Planner.