Putting things off is a bad habit - and fundamental to breaking it are recognising the stages of how we act on problems and working out what’s stopping progress

Procrastination is often detrimental to ourselves, personally and professionally, and to others, colleagues, families and friends, as I covered in my last article. Many people recognise it as a habit that they are none too proud of, but are generally at a loss to know how to overcome it.

Once we’ve registered the high cost of putting things off - to our self-esteem, performance, health, relationships and more - what steps can we take to becoming more reliable and following through with our commitments?

Once we’ve registered the high cost of putting things off - to our self-esteem, performance, health, relationships and more - what steps can we take to becoming more reliable and following through with our commitments?

First, it is helpful to recognise that every action we take follows five stages in what I call the action spiral. This applies to micro tasks - having coffee, writing a report - as well as macro tasks, such as building a renal care unit, or developing a quality improvement strategy.

Identifying which stage we are putting off will clarify what we need to do to move forward.

  • Stage 1: awareness We become aware that there is something we need or want to do - the task
  • State 2: explore and experiment We look for ways to accomplish the task. We may search for options from previous experience, think through ideas, or discuss possibilities with others.
  • Stage 3: choosing and getting involved We choose one option, discarding the rest. We get behind that option, committing to each step it, no matter what it takes. Within this stage, in a long project, there will be many smaller action spirals.
  • Stage 4: saying “enough” and completing Sometimes, the task is finite, or there is a deadline, so we know when enough is enough. For other tasks, we may have to give up ideas of perfection and accept “good enough”.
  • Stage 5: pausing and reflection At this point, we need to stop for a moment, look back over what has happened, celebrate our successes, grieve for losses and see what lessons can be learnt from our mistakes. Failing to attend to this phase of the spiral leads to the inevitable repetition of past mistakes, or burnout, or both. If we let ourselves pause properly, we become refreshed and able to truly turn to the next task with full awareness.

Once we understand the stage at which we are procrastinating, we can respond to the following questions, and the way forward will become clear:

  • Recognise that in other activities getting through this stage is straightforward: what is unique about this situation that is making navigating the stage problematic?
  • What skills are needed to navigate this stage now? Could those skills be transferred from other similar situations where performance was more positive?
  • If relevant and adequate skills are present, is there a core conflict of values preventing movement? What meta-value would resolve this?
  • What support might be needed to enable relevant skills to be employed?

Case study: dealing with mutinous staff

Lee, a manager of an inpatient rehabilitation team, was aware that despite repeated requests for better practice, two members of staff were presenting a series of petty behavioural and attitude challenges - coming in late, failing to clear equipment away adequately, and being sarcastic and condescending with colleagues. He was also aware that they would fall silent when he entered a room, and that laughter would erupt as he left.

Never having come across mobbing before, and normally a decisive man, Lee found himself distracted by worrying over what to do. He came up with several options, but found it hard to decide how to proceed, afraid of exacerbating the situation.

A friend suggested he contact a bullying helpline. Initially sceptical, Lee recognised that the situation had stirred up painful childhood memories of being laughed at for his stammer.

He realised he was overly reliant on his self perception as an inclusive and naturally easygoing manager; a different approach was called for.

He saw that he needed information from HR on how to handle the matter formally, rather than trying to sort it out solely through soft skills.

HR advised him procedurally, and Lee used their input and support to clarify and deal with what had been developing into an ugly situation.