#28 No Psycho-Babble!

by Steven Cerri on March 26, 2007

“Procrastination is easy enough to change!”

Good evening!

Hello everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve updated my blog… but I’m back.

Well, here I go. I guess we’d call what I’m about to do a “rant”. BusinessWeek has a weekly column in its magazine titled “UPFront”. The heading under the UPFront title is “ANALYZE THIS”. The column is basically a business question that is assumed to be addressable by a psychoanalyst. The author of the column is a psychoanalyst and advises executives on psychological aspects of business.

In the March 12, 2007 issue of BusinessWeek a person wrote in complaining that they are a constant procrastinator. M.L of New York indicates; “When I had a corporate job, I would put off work that was challenging, then cram to make the deadline as my stress level soared. Now I own a small business, and the pattern remains… [for client presentations] I prepare only at the last minute, my anxiety mounting as the day approaches and I do nothing. How can I change?”

Now you might ask, “Why am I addressing procrastination in my blog?” Procrastination shows up in many different forms and basically it’s the characteristic behavior of avoiding doing what needs to be done. If we didn’t avoid it, it wouldn’t be procrastination. If it didn’t need to be done, it wouldn’t be procrastination. Therefore, most of us are guilty of procrastinating. The issue comes about when we procrastinate about something that really, really has to get done. Like company expense reports. Or annual performance reviews for our direct reports. Or agendas for meetings. Or weekly or monthly status reports to our boss. Get it?

So now lets get back to the BusinessWeek article.

The psychoanalyst responded to the writer’s questions with a series of questions and possible answers that went something like this:

1. “It could be a kind of ‘behavioral retention’ – action being withheld to the point of extreme discomfort…or…

2. For some it represents a way to provoke an authority figure from whom disappointment or punishment is expected if there’s a failure to deliver…or…

3. Procrastination can even be a way of flirting with self-destructiveness…or…

4. People can receive an addictive thrill from completing tasks just under the wire…or…

5. …Now that you’re the boss, preparing presentations at the last minute ensures that you never feel relaxed and may even signal an underlying conflict about being successful or felling like an adult”

The psychoanalyst suggested that the “first step to making a change: Ask yourself what you might be getting out of this high-risk behavior. As an experiment, just once muster the will necessary to prepare earlier. … What emotions come up?”

I’m sorry, and with all due respect to the psychoanalyst… this is just psycho-babble. And BusinessWeek is doing a disservice to its readers.

Solving procrastination is not about “understanding motivation” on an intellectual level. It is not about understanding what happened to you as a child that made you this way or that way. I can guarantee you that whatever “explanation” our mind comes up with to “explain” why we do a thing, it is not the reason. It is just the “story” our intellect cooks up to explain our actions.

So rather than asking a question about motivation lets make it very, very simple. No therapy. No long weekly sessions that last two years. Just a simple observational question; “Exactly what happens to our neurology when we go into our “procrastination process?” Because it is a process; nothing more, nothing less. Our neurology begins a cascade of somatic processes that we give a name to, “procrastination”.

Let me give you an example of how this works. This is not a psychologist talking. This is not psycho-babble. This is an engineer explaining how easy it is to change an unwanted behavior.

There was a period in my life where I was consistently late for appointments. It didn’t matter what it was. More than 90% of my appointments saw me walk in from 5 minutes to 20 minutes late.

I’d make the usual apologies, get the usual “Oh, that’s OK” and then move on. Even with the arrival of cell phones, I was still late. I just called the party to inform them that I’d be late.

Finally, I decided I wanted to see if I could change this pattern. However, I didn’t go back into my family history, or look at my motivation or fear of or desire for authority. I just decided to “watch” and “notice” what happened to me as an appointment began to approach.

And here is what I noticed when I procrastinated. Whether I was preparing a presentation or getting ready to drive across town for a meeting, I made a mental estimate of how much time if would take me to do whatever I needed to do. If it was to prepare a presentation, I estimated how much time that would take. If I was driving across town, I thought about the freeways and estimated how long it would take me to drive there.

With the time estimate in mind, I didn’t think about what I had to do until I began to approach the completion time, minus the time I had estimated for preparation. So far so good.

For example, if I was to drive across town for a meeting, I would estimate the time to make the trip, lets say 30 minutes. If the meeting was scheduled for 3pm, that meant I would have to leave my house at 2:30pm. And if I had to get dressed and that took 30 minutes, that meant I would have to start dressing at 2pm.

At noon, I wasn’t even thinking about the drive. At 1:45pm I still wasn’t thinking about the drive. At 2:00pm I knew I would have to start getting ready, but I was often involved in other things that I would finish in “just a few minutes”. And so I continued doing the things I was involved in… not in getting ready. I could feel in my body that the anxiety level of being behind was fairly low at 2:00pm and so I did nothing about getting ready.

By 2:15 pm the anxiety level in my nervous system was beginning to rise and now I was moving fairly rapidly to get ready to leave by 2:30pm. But I was already behind. Now the anxiety was raging and I was moving as fast as I could and the stress was mounting. By now I had dropped all other tasks I had been involved in and was focusing 100% on getting ready. I was still behind and ran out the door at 2:40pm guaranteeing that I’d be late.

Once I understood that this was the neurological process that was going on in my nervous system it was relatively easy to adjust it. What I noticed was that when I procrastinated, I would unconsciously “wait” until I reached a certain level of “adrenalin rush” before I focused on getting ready to go to my meeting. There was a “threshold” below which I wouldn’t move in a focused way. This threshold was a very important “line” in this whole dynamic called procrastination. Above the threshold I became one-focused guy. Below that threshold I was preoccupied with other stuff. The threshold was set too high. I had to get really behind and really anxious before I got focused on getting ready.

The solution was to notice where this threshold was and either lower the threshold by conscious choice or anticipate it and override it. But I didn’t really know how to lower the threshold. The threshold seemed to be a conditioned response that I had been using for years and I just didn’t see any easy way to move it. In fact, I didn’t really know what moving it meant or how I’d go about doing that.

So I decided to logically override the threshold. The next time I had an appointment that I had to drive to, I backed up the times and added 15 minutes to the time required to get there. I then made a determined and conscious decision to drop everything at the beginning of the time sequence. I forced myself to begin getting prepared with the total time I thought necessary PLUS 15 minutes. I got to the meeting 10 minutes early, felt relaxed, and determined that it was a good way to function. I now had a second choice and it produced better results than procrastination. Guess which approach I decided to use?

From that point to this day I use this approach to make my decisions about when to start tasks. I’m now 95% of the time on time and I no longer get stressed out by being late. Which, of course, was never the issue in the first place. Being late, having a power trip, etc. was never the issue.

The issue was that somewhere in my life, I had developed a habit of waiting until a certain level of pressure or anxiety had developed in me before I would move to take on a task that was less desirable than the one I was presently doing. Somewhere in my life it had worked. However, it wasn’t working any longer. No therapy was needed. No psychoanalysis was needed. Just some good old self-reflection and decision-making.

For some of us as technical professionals, the process of procrastination at work might actually be even more subtle. For example, we might avoid an uncomfortable conversation because we don’t like conflict. And so we avoid confronting the situation until it is so big that we have no choice… and by the time we address it, it’s a big deal.

Or we might avoid delegating because we don’t trust people to do their job well. And so we make excuses for not delegating.

Or we avoid having the interface conversations with other departments to smooth out the processes that our team must go through in order to complete a project.

In most cases of procrastination we are avoiding something… but I don’t believe we have to look at it as if we are avoiding something that needs psychoanalysis. I believe it’s much more mechanical than that… at least it certainly has been my experience and in the experience of the people I’ve coached and trained. For engineers, scientists, and technologists, it may well be that just a little physiological analysis just might do the trick.

Of course, I must tell you that I’m not a doctor, nor a therapist, not a psychologist, nor a psychiatrist. The information I have put forth here is not to be substituted for sound medical and psycho-analytical advice. I am not a doctor and therefore I am not qualified to be, nor am I, dispensing medical or therapeutic advice of any kind. The information in this blog is anecdotal only.

Be well,

Steven Cerri

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