Founder Fuel: Are you stealing productivity from your future self with busy procrastination?

As entrepreneurs, there often seems to be some unwritten rule that we should be ‘giving our best’ all the time. That we should be filling every minute with tasks… with ‘output’. But the question is, are you filling it with the right tasks? The ones that are the priority, and that will push your business forward?   

Written by our cognitive scientist Maria Lehl

What is it you’re working hard on?

Often we’re working towards major deadlines, but deadlines are only one of the reasons we work hard. Imagine you have been working on that pitch deck all day, but progress has stalled. You notice a small bug on your site and immediately jump on it. Is it urgent? No, is it even important? Hummm, probably not – it’s been there for weeks with no impact. But we all do it. We take our attention from the task that is urgent and/or important and instead focus on something less relevant.

But why?

Our brains are seeking that instant gratification of completing something. In essence, when something starts to feel hard – we seek something else to satisfy that bit in our brain that loves to achieve something… to tick something off that list.

The addictive nature of work achievement can be a blessing when we have to complete something. However, we can also abuse our work superpower to distract ourselves from more important work. 

The avoidance of a task, or so-called procrastination, has been linked by psychologists to lack of interest, lack of clarity, and perceived self-efficacy for a long time. This means we are more likely to avoid tasks that seem boring, overwhelming or a too challenging.

Isn’t procrastination just being lazy?

There is cultural acceptance that procrastination is about poor self-control, in fact according to social psychologist Devon Price, we commonly associate procrastination with laziness,. As such we tend to beat ourselves up even more… “Why can’t I just focus”… “Why can’t I just finish this off?!”.

However, the term ‘procrastination’ is defined merely as “[…] delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring”. It is not laziness, but avoidance of pain that plays the greatest part. That pain may be fear of failure, concern about how to start, or increased appeal of alternatives. For many achievement-focused hard-working entrepreneurs that appeal of alternatives takes hold, and we simply cover the tracks of procrastination by replacing the avoided task with even more work.

The startup world is full of procrastination traps

In a social experiment, Tice and Ferrari show that we tend to procrastinate important (i.e. emotionally loaded) tasks more. Two groups of participants were asked to solve a puzzle in a timed setting. One group learned it as an assessment of their cognitive ability, the other as a fun puzzle. Guess who procrastinated the task more? Of course, the group that thought they were being assessed due to the higher stakes. According to the Association for Psychological Science, procrastination is also linked to a perceived unclarity and perfectionism.

High stakes, lack of clarity, and perfectionism are abundant in the startup world! So if you find yourself as a founder falling into the procrastination trap from time to time, it is only natural – we are simply more exposed to procrastination-triggering situations.

The myth of ‘giving your best’

Surely procrastinating with work is the best kind… the most productive kind?

Let’s reframe that. Every time you work extra hard you are taking productivity from your future self. You drain your finite resources on low-priority work and end up taking it out of your recovery time.

Those founders who have been to our training know that your energy and brain power is a finite resource. To perform at our best as entrepreneurs we need to manage our energy and apply it to the most important work; then dedicate time to recovery (whether it’s a walk, exercise or just making tea) in order to return to our work refuelled to go again.

If you’re still staring at a screen, doing insignificant work while you ‘avoid’ the important work – you’re depleting your vital resources.

If you have a team, this contagious behaviour could carry over to them too. Cumulatively you could end up with a serious loss in productivity and, in the worst case, with burnout.

Here are a few of strategies to try to deal with procrastination.

1.   Tune in to the cause

So first off, let’s accept that procrastination is not about poor self-control or focus. This is not a productivity problem. This is an emotion regulation problem. And we all need to be a little bit kinder to ourselves because as entrepreneurs we tend to be tough on ourselves too.

Tune in to how you’re feeling about the task. What is the real cause of you shifting away from it? Is fear or confusion at play? It’s entirely possible that catastrophizing might be taking hold too – in this case, it may be that the task is being built up into something bigger and scarier than it actually is. Be curious about what is driving your behaviours and you can gradually adjust them.

2.   Be clear about your priorities

Throughout this article, we’ve focused on important/urgent tasks and less important or distracting tasks. This differentiation is all linked back to Covey’s Productivity Habits – to be high-performing entrepreneurs we should focus and make time for the task that are most aligned to our mission or goal.

To get the best from our time and energy (and avoid procrastination) we need to be conscious of this prioritization. You can use whatever task management tools you prefer, but be sure to make the priorities crystal-clear, especially if you use multiple systems. Once doubt is eliminated, you will start forming the habit of just picking up the top priority task.

3.   Just start

Our mind can be excellent at exaggerating the difficulty or unpleasantness of a task. Before declaring defeat on a seemingly hard task, promise yourself to try doing it for 10 minutes. As the psychology professor and author Tim Pychyl puts it in an interview:

“as much as some of us almost fight with ourselves to get started, 10 minutes later we’re on the run and we think we […] could be in the next Olympics.”

The cognitive hurdle of committing to 10 minutes is very low. You may actually end up deciding to work longer, and even if you don’t, you avoid feeling guilty for not even trying. Every time you postpone a task, you make it more daunting in your head.

4.   Break it down

If a task appears overwhelming or obscure, break it down into chunks: What are the steps to completing it? What are the unknowns? Do you know another founder that might have tackled something similar? Could a coach help you to dissect the problem?

A good starting point is to write down all the component parts. Our brains do not have the processing power to weight up complex problems in our heads. Write it down, with lists or spider-diagrams and that processing load lessens. Take the lead from Stanford University social scientist BJ Fogg and beat huge projects by setting up milestones and small wins.

5.   Recognise the need for a recharge

From time to time, you may still fall into the busy procrastination trap. It can be difficult to spot when you are 100% absorbed in your ‘procrastination work’. But once you start tuning in a bit more to what’s going on in the background – you can catch yourself distracting yourself with other work and replace it with a more constructive type of break.

Consider building a habit of taking a break every hour to zoom out and re-evaluate if the task is still worth the effort. Revisit the reasons why you are working on it: Is it urgent? Or did you want a quick win which turned out to be a rabbit-hole? The important point is that, by setting breaks and emotionally distancing yourself from your work for a moment, you leave yourself little exit ramps for consciously planning your recovery and as a result, your best work.

6.   Reduce temptations, increase rewards

Staying on track can be very difficult, even without additional distractions. So do what you can to block out more attractive options. Use headphones to cut out noise, block message notifications, close your email browser and do not glance at other to-do list items.

On the other end of the scale – reward yourself for focus on the prioritised task. BJ Fogg’s tiny habits system we covered here is built entirely around this. You can use physical rewards, personal time or time spent on more attractive tasks. Just make sure to include these rewards into your time management tool.

As entrepreneurial leaders, we often feel we don’t have time for self-improvement, but us and our teams are the most important assets in the business. We spend hours on spreadsheets and strategy for optimising our business – so it just makes sense to invest similar processes when it comes to getting the best out of ourselves too. In the end, managing our own resources and energy better will benefit your company too.

Written by cognitive scientist Maria Lehl for weare3Sixty

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