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Procrastination: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

This article is the third in a 10-part series on the topic of overcoming career-limiting habits.

Let me be honest: I’ve been putting off writing this article for a few days. Since we’re looking at the career-limiting habit of procrastination, I feel it’s appropriate that you know this. And let me also say that I don’t whole-heartedly think procrastination is a “bad” thing.

Before you storm off and accuse me of promoting poor work habits, hear me out…

In a recent study that cited the 10 most common career-limiting habits, procrastination ranked at number 3, just behind unreliability and “that’s not my job.”

Now, I can assume that the kind of procrastination being referenced here is the kind that leads to missed deadlines and other shoddy performance indicators. But not all procrastination is equal. And procrastination, in my view, isn’t at all like unreliability. Here’s why:

It’s never cool to be unreliable. On the other hand, it’s sometimes perfectly okay—even desirable—to procrastinate. It’s a form of prioritization and a tool for time management. We can’t do every single task right this minute. Some items are more important than others. Some are more urgent. We have to purposefully defer less important/less urgent tasks to make room for the ones that take priority. So, I’m not willing to lump procrastination in a big bucket just a few steps removed from unreliability.

Procrastination becomes a problem, however, when it’s not being used productively or when it becomes a mindless form of escape. For example, when you find yourself putting something off because you simply don’t want to do it, or because you’re afraid of doing it, or because you conveniently find other, more interesting things to do (even when the activity you’re putting off really should come first).

So how do you know if you’re procrastinating in the career-limiting kind of way or if you’re just prioritizing? Well, it’s all about purpose and performance.

What are your reasons for procrastinating?

Are you deferring projects because other items rightfully should come first? Or are you simply hiding from what needs to get done? Often, problematic procrastination stems from fear: You’re afraid to work on a specific task because it feels overwhelming, or you don’t know where to start, or you’re a perfectionist and you fear your work will never measure up. There are all kinds of fears that can prevent you from just getting started even when you know you should.

Is your quality of work slipping?

Are you putting off important tasks and then finding yourself rushed to complete them on time? Are you failing to give your work the appropriate amount of attention? The outcome is what matters so you know your procrastination has gone too far and stumbled into “unproductive territory” when it leads to poor performance results.

What can you do about it?

If you’re plagued by procrastination for all the wrong reasons and it’s negatively impacting your work, try the following:

1. Learn to Prioritize Correctly

Each task should be evaluated based on importance and urgency. The unimportant, non-urgent items are the ones that can be easily deferred with little or no harm (and hopefully, in the future, they can be deleted all together). If you’re procrastinating the incorrect items, it’s time to review your prioritization practices.

2. Forget Perfection

Remember that everything evolves. You can make improvements as you move forward. Don’t get stuck because of some unrealistic standard you’ve imposed on yourself.

3. Keep It Bite-Sized

If you’re overwhelmed with the size of a project and putting it off because you don’t know where to start, break it down into bite-sized pieces. One step at a time is the best way to tackle these projects. You’ll be able to wrap your head around what needs to be done and you’ll also experience small victories along the way as you accomplish each baby step.

4. Stop Fooling Yourself

People often tell me that procrastination helps them focus. They wait until the last minute because the added pressure gives them a boost of energy and creativity. This smells like an excuse to me.

In all probability, you could produce even better work given the time to think about what you’re doing. You’ll catch mistakes that would go unnoticed in a pinch; you’ll have the ability to explore alternative solutions instead of simply rushing down the first path you find; and you’ll be able to really focus on the work, rather than being distracted with the stress and anxiety of an impending deadline.

Take some time to evaluate your procrastination practices. Are you using this tool effectively or are you suffering with a career-limiting habit?

Photo Credit: Bondseye (Flickr)

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