Barnaby Lashbrooke, Contributor
March 30, 2021
Ever find yourself eagerly logging your expenses, or clearing the furthest reaches of your inbox while contemplating whether you’ll ever find the will to finish that report, crunch those numbers or fix that problem?
You’re not alone. Procrastination, which often means doing low-value tasks to avoid difficult, more important ones–or else doing things we enjoy rather than things we don’t–is all too common.
One theory is that it’s hyperbolic discounting in action: the tendency to choose smaller rewards now over larger rewards later.
This concept is normally applied to economics (do you want $10 today or $50 in five months’ time), but it applies here too because, by replacing important tasks with easy admin, we’re getting a really bad value exchange in return for a brief burst of satisfaction.
And for entrepreneurs, who ought to be solely focused on the jobs that are important and urgent, it’s a false efficiency. Succumbing to the draw of simple, repetitive tasks can become a serious issue for the health and growth of our businesses. So, how do we get a grip on it?
First, we must grasp why we procrastinate in the first place. A 2013 study by the University of Sheffield proposes that we are prioritizing the regulation of the mood of the present self over the consequences to the future self (another good reason to never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry).
Knowing this, we can convert a lengthy, difficult job into a series of smaller, more manageable steps that can be performed with speed, giving us the sense of satisfaction we crave.
Greater self-awareness can also help us work out if the jobs on our to-do list should be there at all. While it’s always useful to have a basic level of understanding about areas that lie outside your expertise, tasks you’re putting off may be best left to those who know more.
For example, you’ve identified a pressing problem in your business: your website is doing a poor job of turning visitors to customers, and it needs to be fixed as soon as possible.
This job is both important and urgent, because it’s hurting new business and your bottom line with every day that passes, but it’s also overwhelming if you don’t know what to fix.
So, let’s break it down and work out what the job really entails:
- Do some internet research and teach myself a little about website user behaviour and psychology, so I can be more informed
- Look at our analytics to see if these reveal anything obvious about my website’s failings
- Write a short project brief, outlining the problem and what a good outcome would be
- Through my network, request recommendations for website consultants
- Narrow recommendations down to a shortlist of three, contact them all and ask for information about their service
- Compare quotes and ask further questions
- Hire the best consultant
By writing a step-by-step plan of action, and by making a strategic decision that you’re not the best person to do this job, the problem can be be fixed.
Better goal setting
Could deadlines be a root cause of our procrastination? It seems likely. According to Parkinson’s Law, our work will always expand to fill the time available for completion. This means a long and loose deadline could bury our drive to actually complete the work.
Moreover, a 2019 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research suggests longer deadlines produce unintended detrimental consequences known as the ‘mere deadline effect’. Long deadlines lead to the perception of difficulty and this, in turn, increases the likelihood of procrastination, over-committing resources and even quitting the task altogether.
But deadlines are crucial if we hope to get things done. Every task on our to-do list should be time bound, but your time-frame to deliver should be realistic, neither too long nor too short.
Perhaps the hardest type of procrastination to overcome is fear-based: when the task we have to do provokes feelings of anxiety or worry. Perhaps it’s a nerve-wracking public speaking opportunity, or what’s likely to be a difficult conversation with an investor, a customer or an employee.
No one likes to admit they’re afraid so, instead, we tell ourselves we have other things to do. But fear can be used as a tool in business. It can help us to perceive and manage risk, and even give us the fuel or fighting spirit we need to conquer a task. What we don’t want to do is let it get the better of us.
To harness fear, you need to work out where it originates from and what your options are. Try these steps:
- Consider if fear is stopping you from taking action
- Confront that fear: consider what it is you’re really afraid of
- Write down the reasons why you’re fearful: what are the worst case scenarios?
- Write down the consequences that would come from doing nothing at all
- Make a choice, right then and there, and commit to it – not acting from fear, but acting from reason.
By putting fear through this ‘stress test’ you can usually dispel it and move on.
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