Produce, Or Procrastinate?

The problem with schedules is that sometimes you do things because you have to, not because you want to. For me, a recent example is an article that I had to write. The topic was a familiar one for me, I have a lot of background and resources to draw on related to what I was discussing, and I knew what I wanted to say. But—at the time—I really, really didn’t want to write it.

The reason I didn’t want to write the article is relatively straightforward. It wasn’t an issue of confidence. It wasn’t imposter syndrome rearing its head. I was simply tired, at the end of a long period of work as well as responding to a number of personal challenges, and the last thing I wanted to do was write something else.

And yet the deadline loomed. A commitment had been made. I had a choice: produce, or procrastinate.

In large part, these are the circumstances that shape us and define who we are. It is very, very easy to procrastinate. There are numerous temptations—in real and virtual spaces—to divert us from the task at hand. More importantly, we are more than capable of finding distractions with which to occupy our attention.

That’s not to say that the impulse to not work isn’t important to consider. It’s also not to say that real leadership and dedication is about powering through and getting it done—getting it ALL done, despite the personal toll—is what it’s all about. It’s about recognizing that the dilemma of where, when and how to produce is a very real, very personal and very human struggle. We all encounter it. The question is what we do when it happens.

I knew even as I was writing the article that I didn’t really want to. What I’ve also learned, over time, is that the easiest way to tackle something that I don’t want to do is just to get started. Procrastination is at its easiest and most tempting at the beginning, when we haven’t gotten underway, are wrestling with how best to get underway, and are struggling with the fact that there are many, many other things that we would rather be doing.

Knowing this is true for me, I’ve learned some strategies and some coping mechanisms. When I run into something that I don’t want to do–but that I need to do–I try very hard to simply get on with it. I don’t negotiate with myself, per se. I don’t bargain and say, “Work for 15 minutes and if you still don’t want to do it then stop.” I acknowledge there are any number of self-help strategies that suggest exactly that, but it’s not my mindset and it’s not my inner dialogue.

Instead, I just commit to getting started. And the thing is, once I am started, I tend to keep going. What I have appreciated over time is that Newton’s first law of thermodynamics (a body at rest tends to stay at rest; a body in motion tends to stay in motion) has an incredible amount of relevance in the context of time management.

I may not like the work. I may not be inspired by it. At times, it might be entirely mundane. And while a sense of purpose, focus, direction and commitment might theoretically be supposed to engage me and focus my efforts, the simple fact is that some days I really am not interested in getting things done. And yet, getting things done is exactly what needs to happen.

The challenge with putting off work is that it doesn’t go away. Interestingly, though, while putting off work doesn’t change the effort required to get it done, there is a psychic toll that takes hold the longer that we put things off. Defer something long enough, and it assumes massive, monstrous and malevolent proportions. It will still take the same time to get it done once we get started, but the hurdle of getting started becomes mind-numbingly, disproportionately and unreasonably large.

In other words, the more we don’t want to do something, the more we are tempted to put it off. And the more we tend to put something off, the more we don’t want to do it. And the more we put it off and don’t want to do it, the larger and scarier it becomes. That’s when binge-watching Downton Abbey with a boatload of digestives and English Breakfast tea (or shortbread and port, depending on your particular leanings) starts to look awfully tempting.

Most of us don’t have to look far to come up with examples. This morning, for example, I filed. Specifically, I tackled about two months worth of filing that had accumulated on a corner of my desk. It didn’t take me long (and it took me more time to figure out the printer driver on my label printer than it did to do the actual filing), but the pile had been growing for weeks, and had taken on epic proportions (even if it was only about two inches thick in objective reality). It is now successfully eradicated (although more will take it’s place soon enough).

This past weekend, I also got to spend several days cleaning up after Mother Nature. Last Thursday, my neck of the woods was overwhelmed by an ice storm of epic proportions. Twigs, sticks, branches, limbs and whole trees fell victim under the weight of 10 centimetres of frozen water. All of it needed to be cleaned up, and anywhere you looked it was an overwhelming mess. Cleaning any of it, let alone all of it, appeared to be nigh-on impossible.

As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu is quoted as saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” One foot in front of the other and repeat as necessary. Get started somewhere, keep going, and eventually you will be done.

I’m not a fan of gardening. I’m less of a fan of filing. While I enjoy writing, I don’t always want to go there. And yet, all of it needs to get done. Recognizing that the work won’t go away, and won’t necessarily get easier or shorter to accomplish, is what has allowed me to develop strategies that work. Knowing how psychically large an avoided task becomes relative to the actual work required to complete it has helped with the motivation to simply get on with it. Experiencing the reward of accomplishment has provided the reinforcement to keep up the approaches that work.

That’s not to say that just mindlessly moving forward is the answer. The fact that I was tired, that I was worn out, was important to recognize. It was a signal from my brain that I needed to rest, to relax and recharge. That’s also something that I’ve gotten better at doing. While I may have had a deadline to meet, I also had a clear indication that taking some time to stop and unwind in the near future was important.

The challenge in all of this is finding balance. Of course, what actually constitutes “balance” is a touchy and uncertain subject. There are any number of arguments that we must maintain work and life in balance, and equal number of assertions that these dimensions will ebb and flow in proportion to specific demands. In objective reality, the evidence suggests that balance is less of an issue than control. More importantly, I would argue, it is when we are feeling out of control that we feel most tempted to give it up and throw in the towel. Consequences be damned, our self-perception is that we are done.

That was very much the case for the article I was writing to a deadline. Not only didn’t I particularly want to write it, but I also wasn’t particularly engaged with getting feedback. My wife—apart from putting up with me—edits almost everything that I write. She liked the article, but had some suggestions for improvement. They were suggestions that she made verbally, and that I would need to actually take action on.

And so, in the same day, I ran into my second motivational hurdle. I didn’t want to write the article in the first place. And now, based on feedback, I had to go back and edit it. That’s not to say that I expect every thing I write to be perfect at the outset. It’s not to say that I don’t value feedback—painful though it is to take on some days. It’s just to say that if I was done before I started writing, I was really done by the time I needed to start editing.

As I write this, the filing is done, the garden is cleaned and the article was written and submitted on time. I didn’t really want to do any of those things. But I got them done. Moreover, my desk is clear, the garden looks awesome and the article has generated some of the best and most constructive feedback that I’ve received in the last year.

That’s the challenge. You can write what you want about purpose, about meaning and about inspiration. In reality, there are days when the last thing you are going to want to do is actually do the work. The question that you have to ask yourself is whether or not something is going to actually happen.

Genuinely, this isn’t about heroics. This is not an article about denial, about powering through, about continuing to get it done, regardless of the cost. What it is about is recognizing that there are things that need to happen. If they are going to happen, it’s up to us to make it so. And what we need to come to terms with is what is necessary within us to actually do that.

Sometimes, what might be necessary is a pause; a walk outside, a breath of fresh air or a brief distraction before we turn back to the task at hand. And sometimes what we need is to fully step away—and come back another day—because we simply do not have what it takes to be successful. Sometimes, though, we simply need to own up to the fact that we have the need, we have the time and—if we just get started on it—we probably have the bandwidth to get it done.

True talent is a product of knowing ourselves, assessing our capabilities and current emotional state and having an accurate understanding of the task at hand. Call that leadership, call that emotional intelligence or call that appropriate motivation, I’m not particularly concerned. What we are really talking about is the ability to know where we are at, call on the reserves we need to and get done what is in front of us, all while continuing to sustain our ability to produce in the future.

Ultimate success is not simply the result of force of will. It is not merely the product of superhuman endurance or sheer bloody-mindedness. Nor is it the result of maintaining complete and harmonious balance between who we are at work and who we are at home. It’s about doing what we can and what we must to deliver on what is important to us. It’s about digging deep when we have to. And it’s about the wisdom of maintaining—and replenishing—our reserves when we can.

To produce or procrastinate is a choice. By the same measure, we have the choice to attain and sustain our potential. Doing so means we know who we are, how we work, where we are at and what we need to keep going. Even if, sometimes, moving forward means first taking a step back.

One Comment to “Produce, Or Procrastinate?”

  1. Frieda says:

    Great article Mark, an excellent meditation on the need to knuckle down and get things done. I think I need to have this up at my desk. Really like how you’ve drawn the balance between digging deep and pushing yourself just too hard… the key challenge really is knowing yourself. On the whole we are usually capable of more than what we imagine!

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