March 5-11 was National Procrastination Week, but if you never quite got around to celebrating it, don’t worry – you’re probably not alone.
© Mark Holleron
Nancy Morris has written a new book on procrastination at work
After all, everybody procrastinates. Study after study proves that putting off important tasks is as much a part of Canadians’ daily lives as breathing, eating and sleeping.
When it comes to business, however, that hesitation and indecision have a hefty price tag.
Nancy Morris, an Ottawa-based management consultant with a master’s degree in psychology, says the average employee spends anywhere from 10-20 per cent of his workday gossiping with colleagues, surfing the Internet or doing any number of other things to avoid tackling assignments they don’t really want to work on.
But after 25 years of studying workplace behaviour, Ms. Morris has come to a conclusion that flies in the face of everything we’ve been told since childhood: Procrastination is actually a good thing.
“People are feeling bad about themselves unnecessarily, and that bothers me a great deal,” she says.
“If (procrastination) was just something that if we did a few tips we could get rid of, then we would’ve done so by now. It’s there, and you’re not going to be able to get rid of it.”
The Alberta native has written a new book entitled Procrastinate Now: Rethinking Time Management. In it, she argues procrastination is a mark of intelligence and “a tool for creating success.”
Most of us, she says, have been socialized to believe that procrastination is a sign of laziness – an idea she completely dismisses.
“It’s not the case at all,” she says. “It is your sixth sense telling you that something’s not quite right for you. If we keep trying to stop procrastination, then we’re really sort of running up the wrong hill. It’s a useless waste of time to avoid something you’re going to do innately.”
Procrastination is our brain’s way of signalling that something about a task scares or confuses us, she says, just as a fever is our body’s response to an infection. Once people understand that, Ms. Morris says, they begin to embrace their inner procrastinator and examine why they are avoiding certain behaviours.
“I can see the faces change and become more relaxed,” she says of audience reactions when she presents her findings at seminars. “It’s almost like they’re hearing something they sort of know deep inside, that I am procrastinating because I am afraid of something or I’m concerned about something. I’m putting a voice to that – I’m labelling it for them.”
The central tenet of Ms. Moore’s book is a concept called “eating the frog.” Named after a quote from Mark Twain, it’s a method of overcoming our dread of unpleasant tasks – the kind we tend to avoid all day – by tackling them head-on the moment we arrive at our desks. The book also contains more than 100 exercises readers can use to help them make the most of their time.
“If we just charge through it in 15 minutes first thing every morning, we’re changing the perspective of (tasks we avoid),” she argues. “That’s really important if you want to build up somebody’s confidence. Rather than spending a whole day creatively avoiding the frog, now we get to creatively use our brains to solve other problems and create new business results.”
Ms. Morris has taught the “eat the frog” concept to dozens of organizations around the world. She says once people see its results, they almost universally buy into it – and actually have fun with it. Clients have even e-mailed her photos of plastic frogs they use to identify particularly vexing challenges such as unfinished reports.
“People love identifying what that frog is,” Ms. Morris says. “People just get it because it’s simple. It’s like, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ You give somebody too complicated a system and they’re not going to use it.”
In her seminars, she encourages managers to help their employees understand why they procrastinate. Bosses need to realize it is normal behaviour and work with staff to find its underlying causes rather than make employees feel bad for putting things off.
“Business psychology 101 is not usually a course for managers,” she says with a chuckle. “One of the reasons we procrastinate is because we fear being judged. If you’re a manager who either directly or indirectly judges people, they know it. Your own behaviour as a manager can be getting in the way of somebody being productive.”
Procrastinate Now: Rethinking Time Management is available for free on Ms. Morris’s website at nancymorris.com.