On one extreme you have people who we call “driven.” They simply can’t stop until the task is complete.
Regardless of whether the task is a report for the boss, or a book they are reading for fun, the results are the same. It doesn’t matter to them that they don’t get to bed until 2:47 a.m and have to get up at 5:30. They assure their spouse that they “had” to finish the project or book. They would not have been able to really rest until the project was done.
On the other end of the spectrum are the individuals who seemingly can’t finish a project, whether it is something assigned by others or a task they choose to engage in.
There is a grab bag of different reasons for this behavior and I would like to explore some of those reasons because the “cure” for the problem differs wildly from situation to situation depending on the cause.
The stereotype when someone habitually procrastinates is that the person is simply lazy. This may well be in some cases.
If you grew up in a family that consistently enabled you, doing half your work for you and protecting you from the consequences of your unproductiveness the rest of the time, then yes. You probably have systemic laziness.
The fact that your parents caused it out of misguided “love” is neither here nor there. You own the problem now and the most effective way I know to cure it is to plug into an organization that knows how to empower people through relentlessly imposing consequences for your inactivity.
If you are rich, there are some personal training centers which will drive you to excellence for a high fee. The poor man’s cure for having been mollycoddled is called the Marine Corps. They are specialists in curing this specific problem.
OK. We have now swiftly and effectively diagnosed and cured about 8% of the population of those who can’t complete stuff. What about the rest of the people? We will explore the less obvious causes in the next few articles.
Let’s start with a very significant distinction. There are those who start projects and don’t finish, and those who don’t start. They look at a task that needs to be done and know that there are dire consequences for not doing it, but are simply paralyzed. Their guilt rises as the deadline gets closer, but no amount of guilt OR Marine Corps style consequences changes their lifestyle.
One common cause of paralysis in beginning is that the person in question is extremely right-brained.
How does this work?
If we can make a gross over simplification of the brain, the right brain sees the big picture and the finished product. The left brain sees the bit by bit process of getting there. The two functions work very nicely together in boringly average people. Right brain sees the conclusion. Left brain reverse engineers it. Both hemispheres build it out. Simple.
But for those gloriously creative, free spirits who are heavily right brain dominant, it is like shopping at Ikea. You know the product you want is there, but it is so pathologically confusing that you run a 5K race in the shape of a dysfunctional pretzel before you finally get from where you are to where the product is.
The simple switch from right brain thoughts to left brain thoughts which boring people do all the time, often eludes the creative geniuses in our midst.
So let’s walk out a simple scenario. Our beloved Sally Jones from East Overshoe, Iowa, is expecting her mother-in-law for a three-day visit starting next Wednesday.
The deadline is clear and quite inflexible, because Mum is left brain, linear, dependable (and inflexible).
The tasks that need to be done are all clearly understood by Sally. In fact she made a list.
Pick up the dry cleaning.
Take the dog to the kennel.
Wash the sheets in the guest bedroom.
Clean the hall bathroom extra well.
Get flowers for the guest bedroom and the living room.
Wash the front windows.
Weed the flower bed out front.
Vacuum up the dog hair off all the furniture and the carpet.
There is not a single thing on that list that requires a learning curve for her. There is nothing that is particularly emotionally distressing (well, leaving the dog at the kennel is a bit of a heart moment). There is nothing that causes a financial burden. It is all simple, ordinary housekeeping. She has done it all before.
So why is it that by Monday evening when Fred comes home from work, she has done NOTHING on the list and is starting to wear that familiar look of suppressed stress?
He knows the routine.
If he asks her how things are going, she will get defensive. If he asks if she needs help, she will snap at him. If he weeds the flower bed without asking her, she will take it as a rebuke and they will have a pretty pointless, circular, tear-drenched discussion in bed that night. And if he does nothing at all, things will be a mess on Wednesday, and by the time Mum leaves on Sunday, Sally will be an emotional mess to the third degree.
He will spend most of Sunday trying to reassure her that who she is inside is all that matters, even if the house was not spotless, and he loves her dearly. His well-meaning words will just bounce like a super ball because she has already crawled into her shell of shame.
So . . . he sits there at dinner, circling around the situation mentally, looking for some way forward other than the predictable scenarios. It is eating away at his manhood. For goodness sakes, he was the hero at work this week as he solved the complex problem of how to get the parts from their subsidiary in Egypt, to the factory in New Jersey, in time to fulfill their commitment for the big Dorplez contract.
How could he be THE go-to man for solving international logistical problems at work and at the same time be so utterly incapable of having his mother come for a visit without his wife ending up an emotional wreck over housekeeping? This was nuttier than the federal budget.
The solution is actually quite simple and does not have to be demeaning to Sally.
Often the problem is just that the right brain person is so absorbed in the big picture, they can’t see where to start. Sally can’t transition to the left brain to access that bit by bit software which IS there. She knows it is there because she has used it many times, but like Ikea, it mocks her by being so close, yet so inaccessible.
Once someone on the outside gives her the first step or two, she can transition to the left brain and sort out the rest of the process.
I used to see this quite often in the marketplace when I was doing consulting. I would find a highly creative, hard-working employee with high character and high loyalty who was on the verge of being fired because of inability to meet deadlines on special projects.
All I had to do was pair up the right brain person with a left brain person and the problem was solved. The left brainer could be a peer or a supervisor or even an underling. It did not matter. The right brainer merely had to have permission to ask the left brained person, “Where do you think I should start?”
When the left brain person would toss out a couple of steps (which they could do in five seconds) it helped the right brainer to shift to the other side and get going.
So in a dream scenario, Fred and Sally understand this dynamic and she has no shame at making the to do list and posting it on the ‘fridge. Fred glances at it and make a couple of suggestions as to a beginning place.
Interestingly, whether or not she follows his sequence, just having a starting place helps her switch over to the left brain and begin to do the bit by bit thinking that allows her to work through the project. He does not have to sort out the entire process. He just needs to get her functioning on the other side of her brain.
Is it that simple? Yep, IF that is what the cause of the procrastination is.
You see it in kids and their homework. They sit down at the table and stare at that algebra problem while paralysis segues into hopeless despair. If you will help them take the first two or three steps in the first problem, that often gets them going and they can finish the rest.
Suppose you don’t have a husband or a parent to help you shift over into the left brain sequencing. Call a friend. Tell them about the project and then casually say, “What would you do first?”
And if you can’t even ask a friend to jump-start your left brain, check back for the next article in the series as we explore tools the right brain person can use to transition to their left brain, when needed.
Copyright February 2011, by Arthur Burk
From the Quarterdeck, in Anaheim