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April 1993

Procrastinate. (The CPA Manager)

by Dallett, Estelina

    Abstract- Managers should avoid procrastination because it usually leads to wasted money, reputation and opportunities. Putting off responsibilities at a later time only results in short-term rest and long-term worry. Despite the numerous disadvantages related to procrastination, most people continue to wallow in it due to fear and its related anxieties, such as performance anxiety, dread of the result, dislike of the task and boredom. Getting rid of procrastinative behavior involves four steps: recognition, insight, enlightenment and action. Suggestions on how to plan and constructively use time, evaluate own work patterns, adapt to the demands of the job and sustain efforts are provided.

Most of us still procrastinate about something, sometime. In the face of some task or situation that demands action or decision, we purposefully waste time. It may cost us money, our reputation, or opportunity, and it always costs us peace of mind. How can we change? How can we tackle procrastination and bring it to heel before it runs us into obscurity?

The Four-Step Process

1. Recognition. Be aware of the costs of procrastination and the benefits of reform.

2. Insight. Discover procrastination patterns in your work.

3. Enlightenment. Learn the ways other people have successfully changed their habits.

4. Action. Begin to use those methods to change our own habits.

Costs: Short-term Rest, Long-term Worry

Procrastination is a choice. Faced with some distasteful obligation, large or small, professional or personal, we choose to do anything but carry it out. At first, the deadline is comfortably distant. There is no need to act because we have so much time. So, we accomplish more urgent tasks at hand and pursue activities we enjoy.

After some time passes, we realize that we are letting valuable moments slip by. We know that if we were acting responsibly, we would be using our time wisely. Yet we dread the task, disparage the goal, and continue to opt for more pleasing work.

However, by this time, we cannot ignore the impending moment of accountability. We sabotage our happiness and daily occupations with doubt. We become sluggish in all our work and hope time will slow down until it stops just before that deadline. We begin to think the job is more difficult and more momentous than anyone realizes. We begin to make excuses to ourselves or others, knowing well that we are only trying to gloss over a worsening situation.

Eventually, we begin to lose confidence in our ability to make decisions, control our performance at work, and even lead worthwhile lives.

Risks: Losing by Acting at the Last Minute

Ultimately, procrastination is an individual's choice. Plan your work and work your plan or wait till you must choose to act, often at the last minute. So close your eyes, hold your nose, and do your job as quickly as you can in the circumstances. Sometimes you are lucky: others think you did a fine job, the contract wasn't lost, and the auditor won't be coming. Many times you are not so lucky. You have delayed so much that appropriate arrangements can no longer be made. As a result, someone else is chosen for the plum job, no one makes it to the conference, or you lose the commission.

Lucky or not, you know you did not do what you could have done if you had focused and acted from the first. Deep down, your performance on the job does not satisfy you. You lower your self-esteem and anticipate failure.

Reasons: Fears and Feelings Behind Procrastination

If the risks of procrastination are so high and the results so grim, why do we do it in the first place? Often, because as we anticipate meeting a particular obligation, we are struck by fear and its corollaries:

* Performance anxiety: Fear of doing a poor job;

* Dreading the outcome: Fear of what will follow;

* Disliking the task: Fear of specific steps; or

* Boredom: Fear of monotony.

You can start to control your time by controlling these fears. Face them honestly and define them. Ask yourself whether they are rational--are they directly related to the obligation at hand, or are they rooted in anxieties about other aspects of your life? Once you have reflected on them, focus on changing the circumstances that give rise to them. Take steps to overcome your fears and work towards your real objectives instead.

Rewards of Change

Reflect on the rewards of kicking the procrastination habit. They are quite clear:

* Daily feeling of accomplishment;

* Long-term sense of achievement;

* Better performance;

* Satisfaction with a job efficiently done;

* Freedom from the tyranny of imposed tasks--more confidence about mastering future assignments;

* Better professional image;

* Higher self-esteem--belief that you can and will make decisions and take effective action; and

* More control of your job and career.

They prove that it will be worth it to you to gain control of your time.

Plan Your Own Time

To control your time, plan it. Many options are open, use the one that works best for you. Take care, and remember that all require commitment- -commitment to planning responsibly and commitment to the plan itself. To plan constructively, follow these suggestions:

* Clarify your objectives. If you prioritize your values, goals, and activities, you will gain perspective on your career. You can change a vague feeling of fear into a clear feeling of challenge by knowing what you actually want to achieve over the short term and the long term.

* Focus on rational, important priorities. Don't waste time over the trivial.

* Outline a weekly work plan and daily to-do lists that integrate the tasks at hand and your long-term goals.

* Set your own intermediate deadlines. Plan enough time for each phase of a large job and control your own work schedule. You will be more likely to meet staggered deadlines.

* Post your deadlines visibly and tell a trusted colleague about them. You will thus make the deadlines "real" and have the personal support you may need to stick to your plan.

* Give yourself time to make a mistake and learn from it. Remember: If you miss a deadline, others are not likely to go out of their way to help manage your emergency--unless you have a good record and have had the time to help them before.

Use Your Time

Once you have planned your time, use it constructively. With planning as your groundwork, you can take further action to beat procrastination. Choose from these techniques as you need them:

* Manipulate your environment to your advantage by making your actual work-space fit your ideal as much as you can.

* Use your best working time to concentrate on jobs that give you the most difficulty. Set aside a specific period of time for a task and stick to your commitment.

* Keep track of your time and how you spend it. If it slips by unnoticed, it will usually slip by under-used.

* Begin the task. Take some facilitat-ing action as soon as you have made a decision. Once you have started, you will be on your way to meeting your obligation.

* Don't end a working session until you have actually done some work toward your goal. Handle a part of a job that you are comfortable with. You will gradually build momentum and grasp the benefits of seeing your initial efforts through to completion.

* Recognize your ineffective work habits and change them.

Know Your Own Work Patterns

If you can identify your work patterns, you will see how procrastination weaves itself into your work-day. Few of us say, "OK, now I am going to procrastinate for forty minutes." Instead, we let procrastination slip in under some other guise. To focus your thoughts on your habits, ask yourself these questions:

* What are my daily work patterns? (Keep a written record for 3 days, noting activities in fifteen-minute intervals).

* When do I try to tackle tasks that I dislike?

* When do I socialize or concentrate on "easy-work" instead of undertaking more important tasks?

* How do I usually handle large, annual projects?

* How do I usually handle daily record-keeping, or follow-up tasks?

* How do I usually handle the responsibility of communicating sensitive material or bad news?

* Which of my job's regular requirements do I like least and how do I usually handle them?

* Which skills that my job requires do I feel I do not have or could improve upon? If I am called upon to use those skills, what do I do?

Once you have a work habit record, take the time to analyze it: When you do so, be thoughtful and honest as you answer the following questions. Remember, you are striving to improve productivity, not to reinforce procrastination.

* Do I avoid making and refining decisions and thus deny myself the opportunity to apply myself to the goal at hand?

* Do I take the least active option?

* Do I allow negative ideas about a task to balloon?

* Do I fabricate reasons for postponing action?

* Do I need imposed pressures to finish a task?

* Do I allow interruptions to divert me?

* Do I find someone else to do disagreeable tasks?

* Do I schedule unpleasant tasks for times when I am usually unproductive anyway?

* Do I take work home because I think that I will feel more comfortable with it there?

All of these questions, and any that occur to you as you think about your habits, are worthy of your consideration. Any habit of mind or body that interferes with taking decisive action contributes to your tendency to procrastinate.

Think, too about your good habits and the environment that leads you to be most productive. Consider your preferred working hours, your optimum concentration periods, and the ways you have been successful in the past. You can begin to build on your good points first by recognizing them and giving yourself credit for them. Then, enhance the skills and techniques you already have with those presented here and beat the specter of procrastination once and for all.

Customize That Job

Often procrastination has to do not only with your habits and your working environment, but with the dreaded obligation itself. Large, complex jobs may appear daunting and unmanageable. Fear of, or distaste distant for one aspect of the job may lead you to avoid all your related responsibilities.

If you find yourself faced with a sizable, complicated job, or one that you consistently dislike, try these strategies to make it more appealing:

* Break complex jobs down into tasks to accomplish step-by-step. Write careful, detailed instructions as if for someone else, then follow them yourself. You will feel more confident about each manageable task.

* Discover whether you can delegate tasks you dislike to someone else. Do not use this to avoid an obligation. If you choose this route, make sure the task will be done effectively, and make a contract to take on a new task in return.

* Make a boring task creative. Incorporate a challenge--do the job faster or in a new sequence. Create a game out of it or reward yourself for finishing it before the deadline.

* Learn effective ways to accomplish the tasks that make you nervous. If you learn to do them better, you will be more eager to do them on time.

Reinforce Your Own Efforts

Now that you have the resources you need to overcome procrastination, you must learn to use the reflection, planning, and time-management techniques effectively. Be patient with yourself. Neither expect too much too soon, nor give up too quickly. You will have a better chance of succeeding in this if you maintain a positive attitude.

* Always anticipate the good that will come from finishing the task on time. Don't slip back into fear or doubt. Focus on your goal and its positive effects. Remind yourself that you can learn skills or gain knowledge that you need to accomplish a task. No one will think you are dumb; they will perceive you as you are: Someone who is willing to invest time and energy to improve professional performance.

* Do the awkward or difficult task early in the day. You will then feel the exhilaration that comes with accomplishing a dreaded task. It will carry you through the day and even set you up right for the next one.

Focus on good results as they occur. Give yourself credit for all that you do. Seek quality overall rather than perfection in everything. Rather than pressuring yourself too much, face your requirements and your talents realistically.

As you put these techniques into effect, keep on experimenting with yourself and the tasks at hand. Stay open to other options, in decision- making, planning, and practice. The less bound you feel by your obligations, the more eager and creative you will be as you face them.

Andrew E. Schwartz is president of A.E. Schwartz & Associates of Waverley, Massachusetts, a comprehensive training and consulting organization.

Estelina L. Dallett is on staff at A.E. Schwartz & Associates.

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