If we weren’t human beings but, instead, totally rational robots, time management would be easy. We’d just program in some time management algorithms and we’d be done with time management forever.
But humans don’t work that way, and the sooner you accept that you are an irrational human, the sooner you can start working to offset some of the more severe human shortcomings.
When it comes to time management, one of the most severe and pervasive problems is procrastination. And it’s worth spending some time examining it.
In Marshall Cook’s book with the rather simple title of Time Management (which I published at Adams Media), he came up with a rather clever section heading entitled “Five Reasons Why We Procrastinate and Five Strategies to Put Off Putting Off!”
Here are Cook’s reasons we procrastinate:
Reason 1: You Haven’t Really Committed to Doing the Job
Cook says when he teaches a workshop for would-be novelists, he often starts by asking them why they want to write a novel. Such an extended project, after all, demands a huge commitment of time, energy, and emotion. Most of the answers he gets fall into one of three categories.
The first reason, simply stated, is that the writer feels good while writing or, conversely, feels wretched when denied the opportunity to write. For some, writing seems to be almost an addiction or a compulsion, although a relatively harmless one.
The second reason clusters around the notion of communication and storytelling: “I have something to say, and a novel seems to be the best way to say it,” or “I’ve got a story I want or need to tell.” I’ve even heard folks say that the story seems to be using them to get itself told.
The third reason stems from the mistaken notion that novelists become rich and famous with relatively little effort. Many of the folks in this group don’t want to write a novel; they want to have already written a novel, so they can reap the supposed rewards.
Most of the people in the first category and many in the second actually go on to write that novel. Few in the third group ever do.
Occasionally, Cook says, he gets a reason that doesn’t fall into any of these categories. “My English teacher back in good old P.S. 134 said I’d make a good novelist,” one student might say, while another might state, “Folks in my book group think my life story would be inspirational.” Assuming that they aren’t being coy, that they don’t really mean, “I think I’d make a great novelist,” or “I think my life story would be inspirational,” my response to this sort of reasoning borders on Mom’s old admonition: “If somebody told you to jump off a cliff, would you do it?”
The key here is the source of the motivation. We generally don’t need to prioritize or otherwise force or trick ourselves into performing actions that are internally motivated. But the more the source of the motivation comes from the outside – the English teacher or the book club or the mate or the boss or any other external source – the less likely we are to complete the project.
Do you know anyone who got into the family bakery business, or became a lawyer, or joined the Marines because somebody expected or demanded it? If so, you probably know an unhappy baker or lawyer or Marine.
You may chronically put off an activity because you aren’t really sold on doing it at all. Reasons might include:
- You don’t think it’s your job.
- You think it’s somebody else’s job.
- The job’s a waste of time.
If that’s the case, you need to answer two fundamental questions:
- What’s in it for me if I do it?
- What will happen to me if I don’t?
The first question may redirect and increase your motivation. You’re no longer doing it because someone said you should. You’re doing it to impress a boss, help a friend, make money, or get to a task you really enjoy.
The second question is the negative of the first. Your motivation may become avoidance of something unpleasant, like a lousy job evaluation, an angry and alienated spouse, or a disappointed child, for example.
If you can find no internal motivation – no benefit for doing the job and no penalty for not doing it – you may well decide not to do it at all.
Even if you can see a benefit to doing the job, you may still decide that the costs in time and energy (and whether the job prevents you from doing other things) outweigh the benefits. In that case, you can:
- Do what you have to do to get out of the job. That’s not the same thing as simply putting it off. This is a definitive decision not to do it and to accept the consequences, if any. In the long run, that sort of decision costs less in time and stress than the passive resistance of procrastination.
- Do it anyway, but for your own reasons.
Reason 2: You’re Afraid of the Job
Fear of doing a task is a hard thing for many of us to admit to ourselves, let alone to someone else. But it may be what’s keeping you from doing a job you need and want to accomplish. If you can identify your reluctance as fear and track it to its source, you can deal with the problem and get on with completing the job.
Here are three of the most common varieties of performance anxiety:
- Fear of failure. Consider the student who never studies and flunks out. He can always tell himself, “If I had studied, I would have passed the stupid course.” But what if he had studied and still failed? For most of us, “won’t” is a lot easier to deal with than “can’t.” If you don’t try, you don’t have to confront the possibility that you can’t do it.
- Fear of success. On the other hand, if you do pass the course, folks will expect you to do it again, or to go out and get a job, or to apply what you’ve learned. If you never try, you’ll never have to face the consequences of success.
- Fear of finishing. “If I pass the course, I’ll graduate. If I graduate, I’ll . . .” You’ll what? If you don’t pass the course, you’ll never have to find out what happens next. If you never write the novel, you’ll never have to know whether a publisher would have rejected it. If you don’t finish basic training, you’ll never have to know whether you could have really hacked it in the military.
Sometimes not knowing seems more acceptable than the possible consequences of finding out for sure. But how sad to let such fears prevent you from ever trying.
Identify your fear. Give it a name and confront it. Imagine the consequences of your actions or non-actions as objectively as you can.
The fear won’t go away. But if the goal is worth pursuing, you’ll be able to act despite the fear.
Reason 3: You Don’t Place a High Priority on the Activity
You’re sold on the idea that somebody ought to do the task. You’ll even agree, if pressed, that you’re the person to do it. You may even actually want to do it.
But you just don’t want or need to do it enough, and there are always things you seem to want or need to do more.
Thus, the poor task – cleaning the leaves out of the rain gutters in autumn, to cite a mundane example – keeps getting bumped down the list below other, more pressing jobs. You’ve got to go grocery shopping first, because you won’t have anything to eat if you don’t. You’ve got to mow the lawn next, because it will look awful if you don’t. And, anyway, nobody can see the leaves in the rain gutters.
This sort of procrastination may eventually work itself out. As the other tasks get done, those leafy gutters work their way up the list. Or the problem may take on a higher priority after the first hard rain of the season.
Establishing priorities is subjective, especially when dealing with activities that are neither urgent nor particularly important relative to other activities. Take a look at the job that just isn’t getting done and see if you can redefine it in terms of the ultimate benefit you’ll receive for doing it.
In your first time through this process, this definition may be negative:
“If I don’t clean out the rain gutters, there’ll be a flood in the garden after the first hard rain.”
But positive motivations tend to be much stronger, so try recasting the problem in the positive form:
“If I clean out the rain gutters, I’ll protect my garden from flooding.”
Is that important to you?
Finally, are there other ancillary benefits to getting the task done?
- “I’ll finally stop worrying about it.”
- “I’ll get some nice exercise out in the sunshine.”
- “I can listen to a ball game on the radio while I work.”
Are these considerations enough to move the task up the list? If so, get at it. But if they are not, you must either resign yourself to living with the consequences of your non-action or find a way to get the job done without actually having to do it. You could, for example, hire the neighbor kid, thus trading money for time. Or you could add an ancillary benefit to your list (“It won’t cost anything if I do it myself”), tipping the balance in favor of doing it.
Reason 4: You Don’t Know Enough to Do the Task
When I get “writer’s block,” it’s often my subconscious mind’s helpful way of suggesting that I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about.
This is true for other sorts of motivational blocks as well. You may simply not know enough to do the job right. You haven’t consciously recognized or admitted this to yourself, but you know it deep down, and this knowledge is manifesting itself in strong aversion.
Gather the information you need. If all else fails, read the directions (a desperate last resort for many of us). Then plunge into the task.
Learn to discern between the legitimate need to gather information and a stalling mechanism whereby reading the book or going to talk to the guy at the hardware store is simply a way to put off the job.
If your problem is lack of “want to” rather than lack of information, you’ll need a different strategy, namely, what to do when…
Reason 5: You Just Plain Don’t Wanna!
On a preference scale of 1 to 10, giving Rover his flea bath rates a minus-2.
It isn’t merely unpleasant. It isn’t merely disgusting. It’s downright dangerous. Rover does not like his flea bath. The last time you tried this little experiment in torture, you wound up scratched, Rover was traumatized, and the bathroom looked as if it had been hit by a tidal wave. Meanwhile, the fleas are back and Rover is scratching. If you don’t do something, and fast, you’ll have fleas all over the house.
You’ve got two choices, and you don’t need a book on time management to tell you what they are:
- Gut it out and do it, or
- Farm it out.
You can either put on the old raincoat, put a tarp down around the tub, and pop Rover into the suds. Or you can make an appointment with your friendly neighborhood dog groomer.
So identify the reasons for the procrastination. Confront your attitudes and fears. Weigh the consequences. Then deal with it.
Sometimes doing the tasks we’d rather put off is tough, but actually putting it off can be tougher.