How to bust procrastination

In hindsight we often ponder decisions we’ve made and perhaps wonder about their wisdom. Did we make the best decision, was it the right choice or maybe the wrong one. While it is important to reflect about the decision itself it is arguably even more rewarding to explore the thinking that lies behind our decision making process in the first place. Getting more fully in tune with our thinking to understand how and why we make different choices can help us to make wiser decisions in the future. The truth is that when we examine how we make decisions it can illuminate some personal traits or habits in our thinking that don’t serve us very well in the way we arrive at our choices.
For example putting something off is in essence a decision not to take action and undoubtedly we tend to put off actions that involve unpleasantness. Of course we do, it’s only human isn’t it! But avoiding unpleasantness in ‘the moment’ is not always in our best interests in the longer term. Here’s an example of some flawed thinking that I noticed in my own decision making last week.

After three days of raging toothache I managed to get a Dental appointment. I thought I knew which tooth was involved but following X-rays, prodding, poking and various tests the dentist couldn’t confirm which tooth was causing the problem. So we were faced with a dilemma. The dentist explained that she could do some work on the tooth I suspected but in her view this would be quite speculative and not certain to solve the problem. Alternatively I could wait a couple of days and return to have the tests repeated when it maybe more conclusive and pin point the guilty tooth.

Intuitively I just knew that the best decision was to get on with it and treat the tooth I suspected was causing the trouble. However as we discussed this further more rational thought appeared to take over, after all what’s the sense behind drilling out a tooth if you aren’t sure its the right one. I found myself being easily swayed by the sense of this argument and I was convincing myself to override my intuition and put off immediate treatment because it seemed to be the more rational thing to do. But how we can deceive ourselves and weave a pack of apparently rational reasons (excuses and lies!) to support a ‘Put it Off’. I was on the point of leaving but stopped, thought about it again and confronted myself with some honesty. The truth is that I’ve never liked going to the dentist and I’d already endured 30 minutes of discomfort. The thought of the unpleasantness associated with staying any longer to be ‘drilled out’ was the real reason behind the decision to ‘Put it Off’ and not the so called rational argument put forward by the dentist that I’d been only to keen to go along with. Call me a ‘wimp’ but putting it off seemed like a good way to avoid the immediate pain and discomfort of treating the tooth right now. Anyway I changed my mind and stayed put to have the tooth drilled out and re-filled; of course only time will tell if it was the best decision but at least now it was made with out deceiving myself as to the reasoning.

The point of sharing these experiences with you about my toothache is this.

The flaw I noticed here in my decision making process isn’t unique and in fact is quite common. When people put off doing something that involves unpleasantness they frequently mask the real truth behind the decision by making up some apparently rational argument. I’ve noticed this often in work based situations which involve the need to raise an ‘uncomfortable’ issue with a colleague or subordinate. For example Manager X has noticed a member of their team performing poorly, perhaps delivering low standards, arriving late or being abrupt with people. These are issues that clearly need dealing with and are part of a manager’s responsibility to tackle. However these kind of conversations are regarded by many managers as unpleasant and quite understandably so, lets face it who does enjoy having to ‘pull people up’ or criticise or nag? But that’s not the point, what does matter is the string of apparently rational reasons (excuses) that people often conjure up to justify putting off dealing with issues like this in a timely fashion. Here are some examples of self-deception woven into typical statements you might hear at work.

“I’ll do it next week; it’s not a good time to talk with them right now as they seem a bit stressed”

“I really don’t want to upset the ‘apple cart’ just now”

“Morale is a bit low and I don’t want to cause any conflict”

“I’ve got too much on at the moment and I’ll deal with this at their appraisal”

Oh yea, so who are you kidding! OK you might still choose to put it off but at least be honest with yourself and others and say “It’s because I want to avoid the unpleasantness of dealing with it right now”!

Delaying taking action to avoid unpleasantness can also happen in situations involving friends, partners or family. How often do we avoid being honest with someone because it feels uncomfortable and we dress up the reasons for not doing it with excuses like “We don’t want to hurt their feelings” or “Now’s not the right time” or “They won’t understand where I’m coming from”. The simple truth is that we are putting it off to avoid the awkwardness of the conversation itself or perhaps the unpleasantness of what we think they might think of us. Then of course there is the packet of sweets to avoid the unpleasantness of a ‘toddler’ tantrum in the supermarket or the boundaries parents allow to drift because it’s easier to ‘turn a blind eye’. Taking action involves courage and effort while procrastination lacks courage and only involves the effort of contriving the excuses. For our behaviours to change we first need a shift in our thinking and this starts by being truly honest with ourselves about how we are arriving at certain decisions. Better understanding of the thoughts behind our decision making process can enable us to think differently and then make wiser decisions more often.

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