Help Your Team Overcome Procrastination And Finish Projects

The following is a guest post from Future Buzz community member Hillary Rettig. If you’d like to contribute thinking here, please read the guidelines.

Procrastination isn’t laziness, lack of discipline, lack of willpower, etc.: it’s disempowerment. Disempowerment means you aren’t missing anything, but lacking access to that which you have. Remove or heal from the disempowering forces in your work and life and you’ll “automagically” recover all the energy, discipline, willpower, etc., you thought you were missing, or had lost.

There are two main categories of disempowering forces: obstacles and triggers.

An obstacle is something that competes with your project for time or other resources, or that inhibits your ability to do your work. Distractions, conflicts, lack of resources, and lack of training or information are all obstacles.

Triggers are feelings that undermine your ability to do your work – fear and shame being the big two. In fact, these are most people’s major barriers to productivity, since, besides paralyzing you, they also obstruct problem solving. Once you help people overcome their fear and shame, they often speedily deal with their obstacles and get back to work.

The above analysis makes it clear why the two most common tactics for dealing with under-productivity – punishment and nagging – are inadequate.

Punishment includes actual or threatened punitive acts, and emotional punishment such as harshness or shaming. In any form, it increases one’s fear around one’s work, and therefore one’s disempowerment. It also increases one’s need to escape from one’s fears via procrastination. Other problems with punishment include: (1) we become habituated to it, so it eventually loses its power; (2) it at best achieves short-term compliance, and not the growth and capacity building that enables us to do our best; and (3) it’s fundamentally inhumane.

Nagging is what well-meaning bosses and colleagues often do instead of punishment. However, constantly asking someone, “How’s the work going?” is not only not helpful, it’s likely to backfire by adding to your colleague’s sense of fear around his or her project.

Here are some better techniques:

1) Ask if you can help. Better yet, suggest how you can help. Because underproductive people are often mired in shame and denial they will often brush off a non-focused request of assistance. But if you say, “How about if I handle the billing paperwork so you can focus on your blog post,” or, “How about if I handle the graphics while you focus on the text,” they might accept. At home, this strategy looks like, “Honey, why don’t you let me do the dishes and put the kids to bed so you can work on your project?”

2) Assist the person with problem solving, i.e., “Let’s make a list of what needs to get done,” or, “Let’s see whom else we can get to help with this project.”

3) Help them optimize their process. Many people who get struck on their writing or other projects lack an effective process. Ineffective writers, for instance, often think they’re supposed to start at the beginning of the piece and proceed linearly to the end, which is a recipe for a stall-out. Far better to do what nearly all professional writers do and work on whatever part of the piece (or whichever piece) seems most friendly, interesting and accessible at the moment. Then, when you feel the urge, simply switch over to another part. In this way you’ll cover the entire piece as quickly and easily as possible – in part because while you’re busy switching from easy part to easy part, you’re actually shedding light on, and “marinading,” the challenging parts so that they, too, eventually become easy.

Here’s the ultra-prolific Isaac Asimov – author or editor of more than 500 books and a voluminous correspondence – explaining how it works:

‘What if you get a writer’s block?’ That’s a favorite question. I say, ‘I don’t ever get one precisely because I switch from one task to another at will. If I’m tired of one project, I just switch to something else which, at the moment, interests me more’ (from his memoir In Joy Still Felt).

This and other optimized writing techniques will make your process not just way more productive, but way more fun.

4) Encourage them to look at their barriers. If someone can’t do their writing or other work, suggest they write about, or discuss, *why* they can’t. In other words, have them list their obstacles and triggers (most people come up with a list of two or three dozen). Remind them that people’s reasons for procrastinating are always valid. Always. Procrastination is simply a suboptimal response to those reasons.

Fortunately, many obstacles and triggers will be easily dealt with once they’re out in the open – and sometimes simply naming one is enough to defuse it. The rest can be split into the “moderately easy to deal with” and “hard to deal with” camps. Even with the latter, however, at least you’ll know what you’re up against and what you need to do, moving forward.

Everything I said above applies to your staff and colleagues, but obviously it also applies to yourself! High performers learn to manage their internal dialogues and their moment-by-moment relationship with their work so they can catch any punitive or nagging thoughts as – or even before – they occur. This takes a bit of time and practice, but the yield, not just in terms of increased productivity but increased joy in your work, is sublime.

Hillary Rettig’s new book is The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer’s Block (Infinite Art, 2011). Read sample chapters, and access lots of other free information related to productivity and time management at her website. Hillary also does coaching and workshops, and welcomes your inquiries at

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