Productive Leaders

Ph.D., CSP, CDR, US Navy Ret.,
CPAE Speaker Hall of Fame

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Stop Procrastination

5 Ways to Stop the Procrastination Cycle for Leaders


The vicious cycle of delay, avoidance, then panic reminds many of us of writing the high school or college papers the night before. We only buckle down when we cannot avoid it anymore. How do we stop the procrastination cycle?

When we do sit down to focus, we often adopt the “Eat the Dessert First” option, meaning that we do the simplest, easiest, and most entertaining jobs first. We tend to delay tackling the big, looming elephant-sized, and more important projects.

Why do we avoid the important work for the small and non-urgent tasks? Turns out, our brain, specifically, the older, self-preserving limbic system of our brain, is hardwired to avoid things that could be difficult or painful, according to Timothy A. Pychyl, PhD, and author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. Our limbic system is very powerful, and it likes easy jobs.

The prefrontal cortex is the weaker part of the part of the brain which controls decisions and information, and this is the part of the brain that needs to be jolted into taking action that is more challenging. When we have a choice whether to work on something difficult or procrastinate, our limbic system overrides our prefrontal cortex, and we yield to the task of least resistance.

So with our brains working against us, how do we attack those bigger jobs so we can cross them off our To-Do List and stop agonizing over what we need to do?

1. Attack the worst job first. According to Piers Steel, PhD in The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Things Done, we have a depletable amount of willpower, as anyone who has been on a diet knows, so if we don’t start with the worst job first, it is unlikely we will do it at the end of the day when we are tired. That is when leaders hear, “I’ll do it tomorrow.”

I advise students to do the homework they struggle with first, and leave the homework in the classes they enjoy for later in the evening for exactly this reason. Yes, it is easier to do the homework for classes that are easy for you first, but that means that at 11:22 PM you are not likely to choose solving Organic Chemistry problems over sleeping.

2. Start with just five minutes. Shrinking the problem helps the job seem less onerous, so we are able to start the project.
Have you ever mowed the lawn? If you look at the whole project and try to allocate two hours of sweating in 93-degree weather, you might decide to stay inside and watch football instead. If you think about it, the limbic system wins. But if you start mowing for five minutes, chances are, once you see the first few rows of freshly cut grass, you finish the job.

3. Create public accountability. When other people are counting on us, or when we commit to other people that we are going to do something, we tend to do it. We have a desire to avoid letting other people down.

This is why fitness classes and workout partners are such a good idea. We can always find and excuse not to go to the gym, but if someone else is counting on us, we show up.

When I taught yoga, I never missed a class. When I attend yoga classes, I routinely miss 80% of the classes I pencil in on my calendar. Why? Well, no one really misses one person in the class unless that one person is the instructor.

4. Remove the obstacles to focus. Find a way to temporarily get rid of the distractions so you don’t have any other options except  the work you need to do. One technique is to change the work environment.

When I absolutely have to edit a book chapter or create a new economics or leadership program, I need to be completely focused, and this difficult when there are other people around, dishwashers to empty, or dogs who want to play. I need a place where I don’t have the option of doing anything else.

I head to a coffee shop or an empty conference room and I only bring with me the work I have to do. Given no other option, I am wildly productive.

5. Know that there is no perfect time. If we wait until all of the elements are perfect before we start a project, it will never happen. We will always find an excuse to procrastinate.

I used to tell myself that I would write a book chapter when I got “in the mood.” That didn’t work. Given a choice, my emotional limbic system overrides my prefrontal cortex every time. Now I set a time on the calendar and devote that time to writing.

Sit. Focus. Produce. Have a great month!

1 Comment

  1. Robyn Graham

    I’m sure it’s a great article! I’ll have to read it someday! Teehee.


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