Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Issue 29 – Procrastination

A New Year always seems to me to bring the prospect of starting over, of clearing out the clutter from the previous 12 months and to decide where you want to be at the end of the next year. The thought can be both exhilarating and somewhat overwhelming, and you may wonder how on earth you can expect to achieve all that in such a short period of time. As with all things as the days turn into weeks, and the weeks into months, your resolve to make a difference, to create change in your life is diminished until such time you end up doing virtually the same things that you did last year, and the year before that. Do you find yourself procrastinating over every thing you do, running to catch up with the tasks you should have done last week and now you have a list of all the tasks you should be doing today, only to find that you simply don’t have enough hours in the day to get them all done. If you are anything like the rest of your colleagues and acquaintances chances are that by the time the end of the year arrives, you will have achieved little or nothing from the list of goals that you had so carefully decided upon at the beginning of the year.

With the recent devastation and huge loss of life caused by the Boxing Day disaster, the bush fires that continue to ravage our states and territories and the many natural and man made disasters that can and do befall us has once again made me question: What is important? What truly needs to be done? And what would you be happy to leave having left undone, should you leave this earth tomorrow? We take an in depth look at procrastination and how it can be the thief of time, stealing precious moments from our lives, and ultimately preventing us from doing what we want and need to do.

Lorraine Bradshaw
Marketing & Training Coordinator

In this Issue we will be looking at:
• Why lists don’t work
• Technology: The biggest time wasters of them all
• Breaking the procrastination habit
• The fear of failure and the fear of success
• A Thought to Ponder

Why Lists Don’t Work
I’m sure you have at least one “to do list” sitting on your desk right now. If you are anything like your neighbours and colleagues, you probably have several lists – one for work, one for home, one in your briefcase just in case you forget where you put the other lists you created last week, and a list of things you need to do “when you get the time”. The thing is, lists are easy to create, they are also easy to lose, easy to overlook, and easy to forget about when other more urgent items get dropped on your already over flowing desk.

So why do we spend a lot of time creating something that very rarely works? Well there are a lot of reasons, not least of which – having a list means that we can create structure and form out of the chaos that is our desks. We know what we need to do, and we know when we need to have it done by. The problem with most lists, is that there is always something far more exciting to do further down the list rather than the item that sits at number one – which is now important and urgent by the way. We reason that in order to get into the right frame of mind needed to tackle the item that is at number one spot, we’ll do one of the other items on our to do list, and then we will get around to the number one item.  Except of course, we very rarely do, until someone, somewhere (usually the boss) asks where the item is. All of a sudden, the important and urgent item becomes important, urgent and overdue. We work late into the afternoon and evening to produce whatever it is that we need to produce. People (especially the boss) can see us working feverishly away, and reason that we must be very busy, because we are always working so hard.
And because you were able to produce something (OK it wasn’t up to your best standard, but hey you simply ran out of time), this reinforces your belief that you work best under pressure, so instead of starting right away on the next item on the list, you take time out to congratulate yourself on a job well done, perhaps taking time to read the paper, make a cup of coffee, talk to people about how busy you are and so the cycle starts again. 

Believe it or not, this is a form of structured procrastination. We put off doing something we ought to do, usually by doing something else simply because we can. And because you are still producing something, you can create the illusion that you are busy and productive, when in reality all you are is busy. You may deceive yourself into thinking that your working day has structure and purpose, you have managed to cross some of the items off your list after all. But I am sure that if you were truly and brutally honest with yourself you will know that you haven’t achieved what you set out to do today at all. 

I am sure there is someone in your office who fits the description perfectly. It may even be you from time to time. The question is what do you do about it? We offer some suggestions to break the procrastination habit a little later on. In the mean time, we will have a look at one of the biggest time wasters of them all. 

Technology: The biggest time wasters of them all
How many times a day do you check your email? Do you have a message screen that pops up and lets you know that you have new mail waiting, or do you find your eyes straying down to the little envelope that appears next to the clock at the bottom of your computer screen on a regular basis to see if a message has arrived? The question is do you immediately go and read the message that has been sent to you? Or do you try and remember what is was you were doing before the message interrupted you? What happens if you don’t check the message box straight away? Do you find yourself worrying that you might be missing something important, and you simply have to open it. If you do make a point of checking each and every mail message that filters into your inbox, the next question has to be how important was it?

Let’s be honest, few emails are that important. But you have now “downed tools” and ruined your concentration only to find out that you can now buy a Rolex for $1. Of course the problem associated with SPAM cluttering inboxes is a growing epidemic with estimations that by 2006, the total number of email messages sent and received on a daily basis is expected to exceed 60 billion worldwide. It is said that one in two messages will be SPAM and one fifth of all SPAM messages will be pornographic in nature. Whilst some organisations filter unwanted mail messages, the Spammers are usually one step ahead and we will spend a considerable portion of each day deleting unwanted and unread messages. (Image and Data Manager, July/August 2003, p2 “The e-mail monster returns.”)

Whilst we are on the subject of emails, how many email addresses do you have? If you have a computer at home chances are good that it is hooked into the net. Your ISP will have provided you with an email address, whether you choose to use it or not is entirely up to you of course, and with the advent of the many free addresses that you can access via the Internet (Yahoo and Hotmail both have email facilities), with virtually unlimited storage space and the ability to send large file attachments to messages means that these services are extremely popular. With Hotmail you also have the added “benefit” of being able to chat to friends and family in real time too using their MSN service, load a web cam and you can see them too. 

The major benefit and very real problem with Internet based email is that it can be accessed from any computer that has access to the internet, which for a lot of people usually means work. If you had access to the Internet at work would you check your “other” accounts? Of course you would – but in your own time of course. If you multiply the amount of time that you spend checking each account on a daily basis, then multiply that by the number of days that you work, and the number of people in your organisation and you will quickly see that an organisation can lose several hours of productivity each and every day of the year. Of course some organisations have a written policy on what sites are deemed suitable for access during working hours, unfortunately some don’t and “surfing” the net during work hours is also common. 

In a survey back in 2000 a New York human resources company, found that over 80% of people questioned, said they sent and received non-work related emails each working day. The survey also found that 47% of people questioned also surfed non-work related web sites for 30 minutes or more on a daily basis. (Business News Nov 14-20 2002, p18 “Keeping a close watch”). 

In addition to the computer based time wasters we have already looked at, an additional one to consider is the telephone. How long do you spend on the telephone each day? What about the mobile? How many SMS messages do you send and receive each day?  

Breaking the Procrastination Habit
Like most habits, it is not going to be easy to stop procrastinating, and completing those tasks that are important, urgent and overdue. But there are a couple of suggestions that you might like to consider. 

Write down what you do. This can be as simple as a sheet of paper, simply write down the time that you started doing something (and yes you should also write down the time you spend in the kitchen, catching up with friends in the corridor, reading the paper and so on) and the time that you stopped doing it. Do not spend time analysing it at this point, just write it down. Alternatively you can create a spreadsheet broken down into fifteen-minute segments. So instead of creating a “To Do List” this will be labelled a “Done it” spreadsheet. After the end of a couple of days it becomes very easy to analyse the patterns of behaviour and you will quickly begin to alter your working habits and get a lot more done on a daily basis. 

Whilst this strategy sounds like the perfect answer to all your problems, it still does not address those items that are sitting at the top of your to do list that have become important, urgent and still overdue. If you are avoiding doing a job because it seems to be too big and you are completely overwhelmed by it all, then the next suggestion may be of interest and use to you. Break the job down into manageable sizes. Most people if asked to write a 400 page book, would say that they couldn’t do it. The task was simply too much for them. But if asked to write a page and a bit every day for a year, some would be able to say, yes I can do that. But there will be some people to whom writing a page and a bit for a year would be too hard, then the next suggestion would be to write a page and a bit now, today. Most people when asked if they could write a page and a bit today would be able to do it. Then if asked the same question tomorrow, the answer would be, yes I can do a page and a bit today. You don’t have to look backwards and you don’t have to look forwards, but most people would be able to do that. So it is with most large projects that we are asked to do. Can you break down the task into something that you can do and achieve on a daily basis? If the answer is yes, then you are well on the way to completing the task that you have been given.

If you have tried both the suggestions given above and you are still avoiding doing the task(s) that you have been given. I have one more suggestion for you – why not simply start the task, you might surprise yourself.

The Fear of Failure and The Fear of Success
It is said that the people who procrastinate are afraid of one or two things. The fear of failure, and/or the fear of success. If you think that you are not good enough and think that you do not have the skills or the knowledge to do something, then you fear Failure. You reason that if you don’t start then you can’t fail. 

Another aspect to this fear is one of being a perfectionist. We reason that we cannot hand something in until we are completely satisfied with whatever it is, we must cross all the I’s and dot all the T’s, when in reality we don’t at all, but we feel that this is just how we are. But in trying to make a negative trait become a positive one, we are reinforcing our belief system that it is ok to delay.
The other side of the problem is the fear of success. Some people reason that if you do everything you are supposed to do and reach the top of the ladder, the only way is down and you simply don’t want the hassle and the struggle to stay at the top of the pile thank you very much. Your life is too stressful as it is and you don’t need the additional pressure of being so good at what you do that people are giving you even more work to do. 

So the question is – what are you afraid of?

A Thought to Ponder:
“When people say to me, “How do you do so many things?” I often answer them, without meaning to be cruel, “how do you do so little?” It seems to me that people have vast potential. Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. Yet most people don’t. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever.”
Philip Adam