Question: I’m an intelligent person. I do well on projects once I get moving but my co-workers call me the great procrastinator and I think they’re starting to ask if they can work with other people. My end products are great, but no one wants to put in the crazy hours I do right before things are due. I’m also starting to miss some deadlines and can’t figure out why. What can I do?
Thanks for asking this question again. I’m guessing that you’ve asked it before and got frustrating answers about how much better you would do if you stopped procrastinating. Most people can tell you what you already know, this behavior is making your life harder and slowly killing your job future. But almost no one actually talks about why you do it or how to overcome it in real, achievable, steps. So I’m glad you asked again and took the chance that someone would give you a real answer this time. Settle back in your chair and let’s get to work.
First off you need to look at what you’re doing without the assumptions. Yes, it looks like procrastination, but could it be avoidance, fear, defiance, or perfectionism? Your intervention, the change you want to make, needs to be based on your real problem. Don’t just take what other people have told you, or labeled you, and try to fix that. Other people may be full of horse hooey. Ask yourself some questions about what you’re feeling & thinking when you put tasks off.
- “I’m not thinking, I saw there were donuts in the break room and then I talked to Chuck about the ball game and 45 minutes later I still hadn’t started on anything.” If you truly find yourself with lost time, lots of distractions, and no conscious decision to put off your work, you might have ADD/ADHD.
The old thinking was that children outgrew this and you the adult wouldn’t ever have to worry about it. What we know now about ADD is that some adults learn to compensate very well, but the underlying differences in processing information don’t really disappear. Get an evaluation for ADD and consider medication and diet changes to treat it. The GAPS or specific carbohydrate diets are great for this. (shameless plug for my good friend Cara who writes up an awesome menu for the GAPS diet. You can find it at healthhomehappy.com).
ADD responds to newness, social rewards, and urgency. Break the big project into a number of smaller projects with due dates and accountability from your co-workers. Set up small rewards for yourself that break up the day and allow you to see progress. Getting started can be hard, so find little urgent things and entry tasks that you actually like to start your morning. An entry tasks are like doorways for you. They are quick, interesting and usually not that necessary for today. They get you at your desk and using the keyboard so you can physically start the day.
Your brain is wired to move when your body moves. Get the body where it needs to be, doing the things that look like work, and your brain will be more likely to show up too. Last of all, you don’t work like the other kids and you’re not supposed to. Find the ways that work for you. Do you need to work intensely for 3hours and then take a nap? Do you need 5 different tasks going at once so you can switch between them when you loose interest? Experiment with work styles that actually work for you and invest in some headphones so you can drown out the office chatter and zone into your work.
- “I hate this job. I hate my co-workers. I feel powerless and I don’t want to do yet another stupid project that won’t get recognized or appreciated.” Uh-oh! You’re not procrastinating. You’re avoiding. Putting off tasks that need to get done is a great way to be passive aggressive. You may be doing this because you cannot tell the people in your office how you feel, or because you want to get fired or be forced out and can’t just quit.
Back up and find a quiet space to consider some things. Why are you at this job? Is this the only way you have to make enough money for something you truly care about? Is this job to support a life that you no longer want or feel invested in?
If you have a great life and a lousy job, connect your job performance to your exit strategy. Reward yourself for starting tasks with time spent looking for something you really want to do. Get support from outside your job and have that person ask you about where you’re going next. Get a calendar and circle the last day you will be willing to work for this company. Write up the steps you need to take to get gone and still have a great recommendation.
If both your job and your life are sinking you deeper in the quicksand, this is a much larger problem. You could be suffering from depression, or you could need major changes that you feel unwilling or unable to face. Either way, seek some professional help. Get a counselor that you trust and unpack the pieces of your life that are leaving you this angry and tired. For you, procrastination is a symptom of something deeper that will cause larger problems if left unchecked.
- “I’m going to fail. Everyone will finally see that I don’t have what it takes to do this job. I feel jumpy and overwhelmed all the time.” Yup, we’re all jumpy when we’re scared. If you expect failure or a bad outcome then you will put off starting projects because they are emotionally uncomfortable. You’ll avoid them like you probably do the dentist, and then show up with a screaming toothache when you absolutely have to.
If you have this kind of fear after successfully completing other projects, then the feeling isn’t coming from your present life. When did you first feel like this? Who was usually telling you about failure and who was around when you felt like you’d failed? Separate out the now feelings and thoughts from the past that is ambushing you.
This can really be as simple as putting two sheets of paper or two word processing windows in front of you and labeling them “Now” & “Past”. Putting this in front of you helps your brain start thinking about the situation in a new way. Anytime you’re starting a project have these available to write on. Then get moving. And no, I don’t mean pull up to your desk. Get out of the building and walk for a few minutes.
Fear grows when we stay still. Move your body and use the time to think about the work you’re about to do. Take a notepad so you can write down anything that might come to you, but don’t feel bad if it doesn’t. When you get back, go STRAIGHT to your desk and start working.
- “Why do I need to explain this anyway? I get so angry that my co-workers feel I owe them an explanation. I get my work done, what’s the problem? This is defiance. It is the overwhelming feeling that you must take care of yourself by telling everyone around you no. You don’t trust that other people will be helpful and you usually see them as the problem. This can actually be confusing to you if you’re socially aware enough to realize you need and want other people around. You may want the help and accountability, but respond with internal anger and passive aggression.
Procrastination is potentially your way to say no when you don’t even understand why you need to say no. If it’s about your boss or other authority figures, you have a piece of history that needs to be cleaned up. At some point you felt weak, alone, and helpless. You will need reminders of your present strength, the people that support you, and your competence. Put up a bulletin board in your area that is a daily reminder of these things with pictures, certificates, letters, etc. Don’t be afraid to get professional help, counselors are not in charge of you, they are only there to help.
If this is about your peers then you may have a history of betrayal from those closest to you. Procrastination is a way to avoid further disappointment and betrayal. Instead of trying to make nice with your co-workers, put all your projects into terms that you will understand and work towards.
Make this about you! In this case, you will do everyone a favor by focusing on how each of your tasks helps you. Literally write out the ways a good finish will benefit you and make you look good. Put it somewhere you will see it everyday. You also need to get some professional help so you can have the relationships you want.
- “Oh God! This will take forever and no matter when I start, I’ll still be working on it at three in the morning the day it’s due. And it won’t really be done, it’s never where I want it to be. Why, oh why does everything need to be perfect? Where did that start? You’re putting off starting because you know how crazy you will make yourself.
Start handing in rough drafts. If you’re really compulsive about this, turn in your rough drafts to either your boss or a co-worker a day before it’s due. Then, correct ONLY those things the other person asked you to. I don’t care what else you see, leave it.
For you to overcome your procrastination, you will have to think of everything you do as 1/2 way and that’s ok! You will also need to look people right in the eye and shoot down any comments they make about your lack of perfection. You probably care too much about what other people say. Look at yourself in the mirror at least once each day and say out loud, “I really don’t have to care what other people think and I am allowed to ignore what they say.”
Alright, there are some of us who just judge the situation and think that we’ll have the time later, so why not yack at the water cooler now. You will notice that you’re ability to do this diminishes with age. You may have the past experience that tells you it works, but you don’t have long to keep pulling this trick. Look through the list above and find at least two of the strategies that you can use.
Start today and you’ll be looking at a better tomorrow. Start tomorrow and you’re just pushing that much closer to the eventual crash landing you know is coming!