What Do You Think You Are Doing?

So here’s what I know about my relationship to work: I’ve either got it, or I don’t.

And don’t get me wrong, I get a lot of work done. I’m arguably a workaholic in recovery (and some would question how well the recovery is going). But that doesn’t change the fact that there are two default states: working productively, and sloth. Take this column, for example. On a really good day (and I’m hoping this is one of those days) it can take me a little more than an hour to write somewhere around 1,800 quality words (which is in the vicinity of where my weekly posts seem to be tapping out at right now). On a really bad day, there is nothing on this planet that is wrenching even 100 quality words out of my grey matter.

What we call the really good days tends to vary: connected, in the zone, on the ball, about to leave for a two week vacation. But what it’s describing is a state of connection and engagement where we are focussed, attentive, integrative and wholly productive. It’s a work state that many of us recognize, although one that also tends to be a little elusive. It’s difficult to summon on demand, but incredibly immersive and all-consuming when it happens.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a Hungarian psychologist, calls this state of being ‘flow.’ Flow is described as a highly focussed mental state where we are in complete absorption in an activity. We are engaged, challenged and wholly satisfied with our work. The essence of flow is that we are doing the activity for its own sake; we enjoy the work, we feel stretched but satisfied with our ability to perform, and often we feel indescribably proud of the results.

The challenge is that it’s difficult to attain flow on cue. Not impossible, but difficult. More challenging, when we’re not feeling that level of engagement and connection, it’s pretty much a train wreck. Speaking personally, I can stare at a taunting cursor for hours, desperately struggling to frame my thoughts (or even to clearly articulate what my thoughts are). The results are often stilted, awkward, disjointed and illogical. If my best work happens out of flow, some of my worst happens when I’m just not feeling it.

I’ve been reflecting on this a lot of late. As I’ve described previously, there are a number of personal challenges that are paralleling my professional ones. Work itself is busy. There are a number of customer commitments on my plate right now. While I’m proud of the work I’m producing, there is a significant amount to be done in a short space of time. There are also personal needs and expectations on me that I need to deal with. And around the edges, I still need to sleep.

Over this period, I’ve had really amazing work days and I’ve had really abysmal ones. Over all though, I’ve been able to sustain a pretty consistent level of output. The work that I am doing is some of the best of my career. Without trying to be immodest, I am producing results that I’m incredibly proud of. Moreover, I would be proud of it at any time; it’s not that I’m doing good work given my circumstances, it’s that I’m doing exceptional work despite my circumstances.

Let’s go back to the example of this column. So far this year, I consistently met my commitment to publish something on a weekly basis. Not always on the day that I hope, mind you, but always before the end of the week. There have been weeks where I wasn’t sure an article was going to happen, and then it appeared. And every article I’ve produced is one that I’ve been proud to publish.

Why I wasn’t sure an article was going to be published, though, was only partly due to my schedule and other commitments. It had a lot to do, quite frankly, with having no clue about what I was going to say. I keep a backlog of possible topics. I’m usually weighing possible issues to address. But of late it’s been an open question of whether a subject would stir me enough to get something written. That wasn’t for lack of trying, and I may well have sat at my keyboard more than once in a given week with the intention of producing a column. But if the muse wasn’t there, nothing was going to happen.

What I’ve begun to come up with is a theory of what’s going on, and why. And it very much relates to Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, but it builds on it. Yes, when I’m producing work I am engaged and connected. But there’s another factor at play, and that is one of urgency. Specifically, there is a lot on my plate that needs to get done, and I don’t have a lot of bandwidth to do it. So if it’s going to happen, I had better be getting on with it.

The idea of urgency is one that’s appeared relatively frequently of late. And it’s an interesting one to explore. For the moment, I’m going to keep working with personal examples. There have been many projects, large and small, that I’ve produced over the last few years. The Value of Project Management project that I led with Dr. Janice Thomas for PMI was huge. My doctoral thesis wasn’t on the same scale, but it was significant, and represented a significant stretching of my research skills. I wrote a book. I’ve delivered on any number of customer commitments, and I am proud of the majority of the ones that I’ve delivered over the past few years. All of this has been delivered on time. Very often, though, it’s been delivered just barely on time. I can be excruciatingly punctual when I put my mind to it.

I like the idea of working to a plan. I should, given that my field of expertise is strategy and project management. The idea of having work planned out, of being able to work at a manageable pace, where I am able to consistently deliver strong, well-researched, carefully considered and quality results is enormously appealing. But it just doesn’t work that way. If there isn’t a sense of urgency, the work tends not to happen. I put it off, I struggle with where to start, I labour over structure and style and I tend not to get any traction.

Some might call this procrastination. And technically, that may actually be what it is. But that has, frankly, become a label that too many people hide behind as an excuse. What it is really describing, if we are honest, is lack of a sense of urgency and commitment to deliver. Those who procrastinate (and I’ve certainly counted myself among them) don’t feel any drive or commitment to do what they know they are supposed to be doing, even when doing so is urgent and the consequences of not getting it done is critical.

What is important to recognize here is that there are a couple of factors at play. One is inertia. It’s simply the inability to get started. And it’s the easier aspect to deal with in the whole equation of procrastination. There have been many times when, in the face of my to-do list, I’ve wanted to do just about anything else. When this occurs, however, I’ve learned to make a commitment to myself: just start. I don’t set a deadline, per se. I don’t commit to working or writing for at least 15 minutes. I simply get started with doing what’s in front of me. Usually, one step leads to another, and that leads to another.

The other factor at play, however, is commitment. Passion. Engagement with the task at hand. This is a much, much harder challenge to overcome. Procrastinating because you don’t feel like working is one thing. Procrastinating because you don’t care about the result is a whole other level of challenge. Without any sense of purpose or connection with the task at hand, We are entirely unlikely to get anything done.

The implications of this were highlighted for me by a presentation on change management that was shared with me by a client. One of the key observations it made was the role that urgency supposedly plays in managing a successful organizational change. It noted that one of the fundamental roles of leaders in change efforts was establishing a sense of urgency. This was an assertion that I wrestled with, and for a couple of reasons. The first was the notion that leaders need to CREATE urgency. Not highlight it, not shine a light on it, not point out that there might be a crisis at hand. They need to create it. In other words, you need a burning platform; if you don’t have one then a can of gasoline might useful.

The other problem with the idea of creating urgency is the presumption that it can simply be manufactured. Again, this goes back to the different drivers of procrastination. There might be a deadline in place (whether real or artificial). My caring about that deadline, however, depends entirely upon whether I care about the result. Am I procrastinating because I can’t get started? Or am I putting things off because I don’t particularly care about the conclusion?

Overcoming inertia is defined as the primary challenge in establishing a sense of flow. The research of Csikszentmihalyi identifies the need for the task at hand to be engaging, and for the challenge of the task to be in line with the skills of the performer. We should feel stretched in realizing the goal, but we shouldn’t feel that realizing it is impossible.

That means that we also need to care about what we are doing. We need to consider the task an interesting and worthwhile challenge and we need to believe that by applying ourselves to the task in question we can be successful. We still need to get started, but to the degree that the other factors are in place we are likely to continue working. Even better, we are likely to find the experience to be rewarding and engaging, and to ultimately be satisfied with the results that we produce.

When this confluence of motivational criteria doesn’t occur, we are pretty much doomed. Even if we get started, we aren’t going to stick with it. We either don’t care about the result, don’t feel the result is possible or believe that we are being set up for failure.

This, at its essence, is the insidious influence of procrastination. There are different underlying motivations that on the surface look and feel exactly the same. In all circumstances we initially don’t want to do the work. Even with a looming deadline, we struggle to get motivated. Whether we do ultimately succeed or not, however, depends on just how much we care about that result. The urgency of a deadline can be helpful in overcoming procrastination, but it isn’t enough. If we don’t care about what we are doing, there is no deadline on the planet that is going to push us to deliver.

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