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How to Make Yourself Work
 When You Just Don’t Want To

| July 1, 2014

by Jim Bruce

How to Make Yourself Work When You Just Don’t Want To is this week’s Tuesday Reading.  Heidi Grant-Halvorson is author of this essay which appeared in the HBR Blog Network.  Grant-Halvorson is associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School and author of Nine Things Successful People Do Differently.  

Everyone of us is a procrastinator.  We leave projects for later and then often miss our deadline.  We put off making appointments and phone calls.  We don’t go to the gym even though we know that it would be good for our health.  In not doing these things, we pile guilt, stress, and frustration on our selves.  If we just did these things we put off but need to do, we’d be both happier and more effective.

Grant-Halvorson’s good news is that there is a strategy that can help you.  Identifying the strategy depends on why you are procrastinating in the first place:

Reason 1:  You are putting something off because you are afraid that you will screw up.  The strategy here is for you to adopt what psychologists call a “prevention focus.”  What you need to do is to look at what you need to do in a way that isn’t undermined by doubt.  When you have a prevention focus you see the task from the point of view of retaining what you have, on not losing.  Completing a project keeps your manager from getting angry at you.  Having a prevention focus is actually enhanced by anxiety about what could go wrong.  When you focus on avoiding loss, you know that you have to take immediate action.  The more worried you are, the faster you act.

Reason 2:  You’re putting something off because you don’t “feel” like doing it.  Grant-Halvorson says that here you “Make like Spock and ignore your feelings.  They’re getting in the way.”  But, nothing is stopping you.  You just don’t feel like it.  Oliver Burkeman, author of The Antidote:  Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, says, “Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it.”  Burkeman also points that “many of the most prolific artists, writers, and innovators have become so in part because of their reliance on work routines that forced them to put in a certain number of hours a day, no matter how uninspired they felt.  So, if you are still putting something off because you don’t feel like doing it, you don’t have to feel like doing the task to do excellent work.

Reason 3:  You are putting something off because it’s hard, boring or otherwise unpleasant.  The solution here is ”if-then“ planning.  Often our approach in this situation is to take on this sort of task by sheer will.  Research has shown that people often overestimate their ability for self-control.  Grant-Halvorson recommends that the next time you find yourself in this situation, you do some if-then planning.  If-then planning is a contract with yourself – If it’s Wednesday at 10 am I will stop what I am doing and then start of the report.  You decide in advance exactly when you are going to work on the task.  And, you should decide where, etc. as well.  You want all your decisions made so that you can shut down whatever you are doing and turn immediately to the task you are scheduled to do.  If-then planning has been shown to increase rates of goal attainment and productivity by 200-300% on the average.

Three approaches to reducing your (and my) tendencies to procrastinate.  Not all that sexy but the data says that they are effective.  Think about one thing you’ve been putting off and step up, face it, and get it done.

.  .  .  .    jim