Is your procrastination working for you? You bet it is.
Picture this. You open the document you created for the report that’s due tomorrow and that you’ve known about for a month but haven’t started. You remember that you’ve got no idea how to structure the report, so you grab the monthly budget figures to review instead. You finish the budget review and are about to open the report again when someone walks by your desk so you flag them to come over for a chat. When they leave, you check the budget figures again, and then you head out to a meeting, telling yourself that you’ll bring the report home to finish tonight.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
The truth is we never do anything that doesn’t work for us in some way. You procrastinate for a reason.
You procrastinate because procrastination meets your needs.
Human needs and procrastination
According to Tony Robbins’ theory on universal human needs, we all crave certainty, which can also be called safety, security, and comfort. Conversely, we all crave uncertainty too. Uncertainty is excitement, drama, variety, and adventure.
You’re human. You’ve got a need for certainty, and a need for uncertainty.
And procrastination is a powerful way to meet both needs.
Meeting our need for certainty
When we procrastinate, we put off doing what we’re unsure of and stick with what we know. By not doing the next thing, we stay in the current thing, the thing we’ve done before. “Been there done that” might be boring, but it’s familiar.
Procrastination then becomes a habit in and of itself, keeping us safe from what we’re not sure about. When procrastination becomes a habit, then that habit itself becomes routine, and the cycle locks itself in.
Meeting our need for uncertainty
Even while we’re putting off the unfamiliar, we know we’ll have to get to it eventually. And when deadlines are hanging over our heads, the drama of doing things in a mad rush meets our human need for excitement and adventure. Creating a pressured situation gets the blood flowing and makes us feel alive.
Meeting your needs resourcefully
You might be getting your needs for both certainty and uncertainty met by procrastination, but not in a resourceful way. Resourceful ways of meeting our needs are healthy ways of moving towards our goals that are ecological – good for us, good for the people around us, and good for the organisation. The stress we create for ourselves and for others when we procrastinate is definitely not healthy and increases our risk of not doing the job on time, or well.
The solution is to consciously build certainty and uncertainty into how you do what you do, in a resourceful, healthy way.
Ways to build certainty
One of the easiest ways to build certainty when doing unfamiliar work is working in sprints. Pick a task that needs doing and commit a certain amount of time to it. Set a timer (which you probably have on your mobile phone) and work until the beeper goes. The only criteria is that you work hard for the period of time you’ve suggested. Then you stop and either take a break or do something else. Remove any need to accomplish a specific thing within that time and have time as the only criteria for your work. If you get stuck, just press on until the beeper goes.
I like to work in 50 minute sprints and take 10 minutes to have a cup of tea or do a menial task until it’s time for the next 50 minute sprint.
Ways to build uncertainty
Certainty can bring boredom, which we counter with drama. Create healthy drama by setting challenges for yourself that build your skills and confidence.
Assist on a project you’re unfamiliar with. Pick something you’ve been interested in learning and start building your knowledge in that area. If all else fails, set yourself little challenges that only you need to know about. Did this paperwork take you 45 minutes yesterday? See if you can do it in 40 today and treat yourself like a champion if you do it.
Don’t let your guard down
Just because you use healthy ways to meet your needs for certainty and uncertainty, doesn’t mean procrastination goes away forever. Beware the inevitability of procrastination creeping back into your habits when something scary and new comes up.
Forewarned is forearmed. Just notice that tendency to procrastination as it returns and get clear on what’s creating the discomfort. When you begin familiarising yourself with what’s scaring you, you’re on your way to creating the resourceful practices that meet your needs for certainty and uncertainty.
And you make your procrastination truly work for you.
Debbie Thompson is a leadership coach who combines her years in leadership positions with her love of coaching high achievers to outstanding results. She works to help managers, leaders and business owners master that “leadership thing” so that they get more clarity, have more impact, and multiply their influence.