The wrong sort of procrastination is both more tempting and more dangerous when you’re running your own business. How can you best approach the temptations and traps of continuing to put the wrong things off until tomorrow?

Image: Djim Loic – Unsplash

My school Latin studies have turned out to be surprisingly useful, not least in teaching me not only that – fun fact – “pro” means “for” but that “crastina” means “tomorrow” hence the English word “procrastinate” means to continually put something off for tomorrow.

Before we go on, one helpful thing to bear in mind is that procrastination is not always bad, there is a both a good and a bad sense in which we tend to put things off and leave things undone. In his much-read 2005 blog post on the topic, storied tech investor Paul Graham concludes, “I think the way to “solve” the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you”. Paul Graham also refers to being happy “to leave the right things undone”. My (rather less well known) article on Slow Days talks about the value of those days when we get seemingly little on our to-do list done, especially when they’re unplanned, to re-energise us. We’re not procrastinating, we’re retooling or to put more techily, doing some vital rebooting. And often there’s no need to do everything today; learning to prioritise and, even when necessary, to bin – tasks is a key part of running your own business.

Procrastination isn’t always bad but it can create an anxious low level hum of the undone

Having got that out of the way, let’s deal here with bad procrastination, the kind which causes unnecessary pressure and inconvenience to others and ourselves.

In normal employment, that kind of procrastination can range from a small problem that annoys and inconveniences colleagues to a larger one that genuinely slows things down and causes unnecessary bottlenecks. However, in your own business, the wrong kind of procrastination can be far more damaging. And yet, in your own business, temptations to procrastinate in that way can be bigger, partly because you’re wearing a number of hats and precisely because more is at stake.

The wrong kind of procrastination can be deeply damaging in your own business

The first step to dealing with procrastination is establishing clarity around why you’re doing it. There are all sorts of possible reasons from struggling to prioritise to boredom at the prospect of a task to not having sufficient knowledge or skills, to simply being scared or overwhelmed.

In their excellent book The Coach’s Casebook , Geoff Watts and Kim Morgan talk about four big causes of procrastination.

  • Firstly, a fear of failure – i.e. “It’s not that I failed, it’s that I didn’t have time to succeed”.
  • Secondly, perfectionism – i.e. “I don’t want to do it unless it’s as good as possible.”
  • Thirdly, a lack of assertiveness – i.e. “I’ve said ‘Yes’ to too many people because I struggle to say ‘No’”.
  • Finally, a lack of autonomy – i.e. “I feel like I have no control. Delaying this task makes me feel like I have more control.”

From personal experience, I would add one more, the need for the pressure of a looming deadline –i.e  “I do my best work under pressure so I’ll wait until the pressure’s on.” This is one which often underlies my own procrastination.

It’s worth trying to work out which ones apply to you in the unhelpful procrastination in which you’re currently engaged. To do that, ask yourself, “Around which particular tasks do I tend to procrastinate?” “What does that look like?” “Can I see any patterns around this stretching back through my life?” We can’t break patterns when we’re not aware of them.

A task deferred doesn’t disappear

Once you’re more aware of the patterns and clearer on the underlying causes of your procrastination, start to address them by asking yourself some new questions. The most valuable of these questions is “What are the benefits to me and to the business of doing this now?” Conversely, it’s worth asking “What would be the cost of me not doing this now?” and then “What are the benefits to me and the business of me changing this behaviour?” and “What would be the cost to me and the business of continuing like this going forward?”

It’s really key to get a sense of the costs of the particular procrastination to you and your business. It’s easy to forget as we put something off for the umpteenth time that a task deferred doesn’t disappear but rather hangs over us even as we’re trying to focus on other things. Procrastination creates an anxious low level hum of the undone which distracts us and wastes time and resources without accomplishing anything

It’s key to get a sense of the costs to you and your business

Being clear on context/ big picture and benefits is an especially helpful way of keeping on track with tasks. Wyatt and Morgan speak of the benefit of making “explicit commitments” to stay on track, like writing them out or saying them out loud. Tracking progress and objectives visually – on a chart on our wall, or on our laptop – can also help.

With the help of others, it’s up to you to come up with strategies and questions that work for you, and then up to you to put these strategies into practice. Unsurprisingly, the key to tackling procrastination is not to put off dealing with it off until tomorrow. My school Latin teacher also taught me that the Latin word for today is “hodie” (pronounced “ho-de-yay”) so, let’s coin a new word – prohodiate (getting it done today) and put it into practice…

Today’s the day: tackling procrastination