The Joy of Completion

When I was a high school counselor, I used to tell my students that the worst thing about a failing grade is what it does to one’s self esteem.  The same is true of procrastination.  We’ve all put off doing unpleasant tasks (think: taxes) and, on occasion, the consequences can be costly.  Most of the time, however, we scramble at the last moment to do what needs to be done and no permanent harm is evident. 

For those of us who consider ourselves chronic procrastinators, however, the damage to one’s self-esteem is long-lasting. If, for no other reason, learning to tackle difficult or unpleasant tasks will help you feel better about yourself.   After all, at the end of the day all we have is our self-esteem.

The I-Don’t-Feel-Like-It Trap

When we rely on the phrase, “I don’t feel like it”, procrastination becomes a learned habit.  Oddly enough, we believe not feeling like doing something is a reason to not do something.  The ‘why’ behind I don’t feel like it can be complex.  The task can demand a level of skill, knowledge or concentration that alludes you, it can take a good deal of time, and/or stir up uncomfortable feelings.  Anxiety is an oft-felt reason we postpone completing a task that must be done.

In my own case, I write to understand the world around me.  Publishing my writing, however, causes me anxiety: the fear of being judged wrong, ill-informed, or just plain stupid.  I am, therefore, prone to procrastinate releasing a final version of my writing (including this blog entry). 

Abandon Perfection

Many of us have a standard of excellence to which we aspire.  Only when that standard becomes impossibly high, does the specter of procrastination loom.  Those who strive for perfection are inclined to procrastinate more than others; one can wait a lifetime for a task to be perfect. Winston Churchill has been famously quoted as saying: “The maxim, “Nothing prevails but perfection,” may be spelled PARALYSIS.” 

Let’s take an example from my own coaching practice.  Many of my clients are in the process of exploring a new career and looking for a job.  These activities are enough to send one to cleaning out sock drawers -- anything to avoid the anxiety-producing tasks involved in looking for work.

Baby Steps

I break down the daunting process of job hunting into baby steps.  One: make a list of all your positive attributes (you may need help with this).  Two: outline what works in your current or most recent position and what is lacking.  Three:  list all your special skills and talents including the ones that are hidden (such as whistling through your teeth or remembering punchlines to jokes).  Now you’re on the road to self-discovery and realizing what you’re seeking.  The same baby-step process can be applied to writing a resume.

Any task can be broken into baby steps.  Once you’ve identified those steps, you must assign them a beginning and completion date…no ifs, ands or buts.  When you complete those steps, you can joyfully check them off your ‘to-do’ list.

I recently met with a disciplined and professional woman who needed to study for a licensing exam.  This is a woman who records all her expenses, exercises religiously and learns world languages in her spare time.  And yet, she had been avoiding studying for her exam. The anxiety of taking an exam (a throw- back to her school days) prevented her from taking the first step to studying. 

Together we re-defined the task as learning new material rather than studying for an exam.  She agreed to use her study guide for 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week: no more and no less. She’s now off and running.

Celebrate Success

Celebrating small successes is important for keeping your momentum going.  I shared an office many years ago with a woman who was a master at this.  When she got a sales appointment, she would bring in cupcakes.  Unlike me, she didn’t wait until she closed the sale to celebrate.  Tackling procrastination is cause to celebrate.

What task, big or small, have you been avoiding?  Identify the anxiety or obstacle; break it down into baby steps; redefine it, if necessary; assign timelines and deadlines; record the steps and deadlines; and do a happy dance when you check it off your to-do list. 

Remember to celebrate your successes in whatever way that supports your goals (if you’re on a calorie-restricted eating regime, cupcakes may not be the reward you need).  The joy of completion is reward in itself but sometimes we need a special treat.  As soon as I hit the “publish” button for this blog entry, I’m going for a walk!