You Resent Being Given Responsibility for the Task
This is often a symptom rather than a root cause of procrastination. If you feel that the task is boring, pointless, unpleasant, overwhelming, or unclear, or you are afraid of failing at it, then you would naturally resent being given responsibility for it.
However, if the task is none of these things and you still resent being given it, then this can become a trigger for not getting on with it. This is a natural passive-aggressive response to feeling aggrieved but having no other means of making your feelings known.
This suggests that either you are being unrealistic about what your job actually involves and you need to come to terms with it, or the work really has been unfairly dumped on you and you can’t see any way to get out of doing it.
In either case, there is no easy solution although if you have been given work that you are not really responsible for then you need to consider why this has happened. Have you done or said anything that may have led others to think that you’re happy to take the task on?
Even if you can’t get out of doing the task can you prevent the responsibility for this type of work being given to you in the future? Is this something you can bring up with your boss in your next appraisal meeting? Is the task suitable for you to delegate to one of your team? he latter may mean you having to perform the task whilst offering someone else the opportunity to develop their skills and knowledge.
The Task Appears Overwhelming
This trigger is another often-given reason for not starting a task. he thought process usually runs something like this:
That sounds like a lot of work. In fact I don’t think I will be able to cope with it. What if it turns out to be even worse than it sounds?
I can’t bear to even think about it. I’ll just ignore it and hopefully it will go away.
Unfortunately, these tasks seldom go away by themselves and the longer you leave it before taking action the worse the situation gets. Firstly, because the task is sitting there at the back of your mind slowly sapping your mental energy as you worry about it.
Secondly, because if it does turn out to be more work than you can cope with then someone, ideally your boss, needs to know this in order to do something about it. If this is the case then your boss would be justified in being annoyed that you had not brought the situation to his or her attention as soon as you could.
To handle a task that over- whelms you
- Quantify actual work required Break down into sub-tasks of
- Time & Resources. Present this case to your boss for approval.
The best way to deal with jobs like this is to assume that you are right – it really is an impossible task for you to do with the time and resources available. You need to sit down with the intention of quantifying the work involved so you can prove this to your boss.
The act of putting together a case to present to your boss will force you to plan how the task can be broken into sub-tasks and then to assign time and resource requirements to each. Doing this will mean that you have to question many of your initial assumptions and be realistic about what each stage will actually involve.
The end result will be a plan detailing the individual stages and a time requirement for each that you feel is accurate and that you could defend if your boss questioned it.
If it turns out that you really have been given a job that is impossible to complete with the time and resources you have available, then all you need to do is to approach your boss and make your case. Quite often, however, you will realize that the task is not as much work as you thought it was and you now have a plan for doing it in smaller chunks, each with an associated timeframe.
Either outcome is preferable to the initial situation where you were hoping that the task would just go away whilst knowing that this was very unlikely to happen. The longer you leave addressing the task the narrower your options are for resolving the problem.
With this approach, you are to some extent ‘fooling yourself ’ into taking a first step to tackle something that you otherwise could not start. Often just taking the first step, regardless of how small, can serve as an inducement and thus a motivator for further action.
One of the reasons why people feel overwhelmed is because there is something missing that they need to complete the task but they are unable to articulate precisely what it is without thinking about the task in detail
However, they can’t bring themselves to think about the task in detail because it appears overwhelming and it is much easier to procrastinate. This is a so-called ‘catch-22’ scenario and the approach detailed above can help to break it.
One result of the plan you have developed should be a list of any resources you need, and it may be that there is something in this list that represents the ‘missing’ resource. If so, then you can use your plan to approach your boss in order to secure it.
You Don’t Know How to Proceed
This is another very common trigger, particularly when there are two or more equally valid approaches to the task. It could be that:
- you don’t feel you have the authority to make this fundamental decision;
- you don’t have the information you need to make it; or
- you simply can’t decide on the ‘best’ course of
In the first two cases it is up to you to get the authority or the information. he third case is more common and more difficult. Remember, the key word here is ‘best.’ It probably doesn’t matter if you don’t pick the ‘best’ way forward as long as you do actually move forward towards your goal.
Very often the best way of achieving something simply cannot be known in advance; it may even be the first time this task has been performed in your organization. In either case you will often arrive at the final solution in an indirect way.
Whether you feel comfortable with this approach will depend on the culture within your organization and it may be necessary to cover yourself by asking for input from your boss or your peers. If you do this then it is always best to put forward the most likely options with a list of the pros and cons of each.
The opposite is also true and sometimes the only way to discover that something won’t work is to try it and see. This may be due to new circumstances surrounding the task or external factors that have altered the environment in which the task will be performed.
You Are Afraid of Failure
The reason for your fear of failure can be broken down into two separate areas of your feelings.
These are quite different things. In the first case, it is your reservations about your own abilities that is causing you concern. In the second case it is the wisdom of undertaking the task at all. In both of these cases your tendency to procrastinate is a result of trying to retain a positive self-image by not being associated with failure.
The second case is probably the easiest to deal with in that all you need to do is agree with the stakeholders what you are being asked to deliver and to make sure that they are aware of any reservations you may have. It is important not to phrase your concerns in a negative way but only to appear to seek clarification of what you are being asked to do.
If you are still worried, then make sure that all of your concerns are detailed in writing, for example in emails, and keep these to cover yourself in case of recriminations in the future. By keeping the communications of your progress with the task in the forefront of these people’s minds you will avoid any unexpected surprises.
If your reservations and concerns are to do with your own abilities then you should think carefully about what exactly is at the root of your fear. It could be that one of the other triggers is the primary cause.
The task may appear overwhelming and you may feel that failure is inevitable. In which case the fear of failure is really a symptom rather than a cause.
When fear of failure is a trigger for procrastination then this is usually a result of perfectionism on the part of the procrastinator. Perfectionism can be defined as:
‘A propensity for being displeased with anything that is not perfect or does not meet extremely high standards.’
It is characterized by feelings that whatever you achieve it is never good enough because it falls short of perfection.
Perfectionism is often set in motion early in life by parents and older siblings, particularly if there is a h
Perfectionists set themselves unreachable goals that they then blame themselves for not reaching. This constant pressure to achieve perfection and the resulting inevitable failure leads perfectionists to be self-critical and self-blaming which results in lower self-esteem.
At some point, certain mental processes kick in unconsciously to preserve the perfectionist’s self-image. The logic goes something like this:
‘If I try hard and fail, that is worse than if I don’t try and end up failing. In the former case, I gave it my best and failed. In the latter, because I really did not try, I truly did not fail.’
Procrastination is used by perfectionists to try to convince themselves that shortage of time is the reason for the lack of perfection in the completed task rather than lack of intrinsic ability.
Perfectionism is really a tendency that exists on a continuum rather than being something that is either present or absent. People who suffer from extreme perfectionism are often depressed and withdrawn and usually need professional psychiatric help to overcome their low self-esteem.
At the other end of the continuum, many people feel that there are some areas that they ought to excel at and these are often tied up with professional pride and a positive self-image. In instances where performance in a particular task may highlight these areas people may choose to procrastinate rather than risk having their ability in these areas actually put to the test.
For example: someone whose positive self-image is based on being an expert negotiator may put of dealing with a particular supplier because they are afraid that they may come of second-best in this case and this will undermine their self-image.
This type of low-level or area-specific perfectionism is not uncommon and often leads to procrastination or task avoidance. If you feel as though you may avoid starting certain tasks because you don’t think that you could do them perfectly then it is important that you face up to it and try to overcome it.
The most effective thing you can do is to be clear about what your boss or co-workers would consider a successful outcome to look like. Very often this will be far simpler to achieve than your own idea of perfection. After all most of the deliverables that we are required to produce in the workplace need to fulfill a particular function and as long as they do so they are considered successful.
For example, it is far more important that an internal report provides accurate and timely information than how fancy it looks. If time does not allow for all areas to be thoroughly researched then you detail any assumptions you have had to make in the report. You can also highlight any areas you feel need further clarification.
Most decision-makers would rather have the necessary information on time and unadorned than the same information beautifully presented but a day late. It is important to remember that your report is only part of this process and the timeframe given is essential to the overall success of the larger picture.
Similarly, if you are responsible for dealing with a customer or supplier, does your boss really expect you to get all of the organization’s demands met every single time with absolutely no compromises? It is all too easy to go into negotiations with a list of ideal outcomes and to imagine that unless these are achieved then you will have failed. The reality is that most things are agreed by compromise and your list of ideal outcomes may be wholly unrealistic.
You Are Afraid of Success
Fear of success may sound like an unlikely reason to procrastinate. After all, why would anyone fear success? This is one trigger that people find difficult to admit to because it implies that they are fearful of the consequences of their achievements. This goes against the accepted wisdom that achievements are positive things and by definition they don’t come with negative consequences.
However, there are at least four valid reasons for fearing success.
Firstly, you feel that you will be ‘rewarded’ by being set an even more difficult task. For example, you feel that if you put in a great deal of hard work involving late nights, stress, and aggravation to bring a particular supplier into line then your reward will be to do the same thing to a supplier who has a reputation for being even more intransigent.
So why succeed? This is a perfectly reasonable viewpoint as the consequences of completing the task successfully may be unpalatable. This scenario is quite common in the workplace.
Secondly, some people feel that each success only sets them up for the next challenge and invites greater expectations from their boss, co-workers, friends, or family. This reason is diferent from the irst because each challenge they overcome appears to be part of an endless cycle rather than having a dubious ‘reward’ attached to it.
Thirdly, successful completion of the task may have negative consequences for other people. For example, it could lead to co-workers being made redundant or it could change working practices that people are comfortable with. It could undermine someone’s reputation or make his or her efforts superfluous.
Finally, the material rewards of success may take you away from an area in which you are happy. For example you may enjoy the ‘doing’ aspects of your job more than the management aspects and feel as though success will mean that you are forced into spending more time on the management duties you dislike. Similarly, promotion may mean that you have to physically move to a new department or even a new city with all of the upheaval that will entail.
- Successfully completed tasks may have consequences that are bad for you personally.
- This can be hard to admit as it goes against the accepted wisdom that achievements always have positive outcomes.