Common blindspots and how to overcome them: Procrastination, perfectionism and paralysis
This article is the first in an Abilitise series on common blindspots people face in the workplace and in life and how to address them.
One of the things I hear often from clients is “I can’t make X a priority until Y happens.”
Here are some examples:
“I can’t do my business planning properly until COVID-19 is behind us.”
“We can’t take the next step to grow the business until we wrap up our current projects.”
“We can’t diversify into a new area until we have the right team employed.”
These statements may on the surface sound perfectly reasonable, but rarely are they actually helpful. Why? Because there will always be a reason not to do something.
Once you’ve cleared those supposed barriers there will be new barriers, new uncertainty and new reasons not to do something. More importantly, perhaps those barriers will never be cleared. COVID-19 may never truly “end”, your current projects may never wrap up since they’ll simply be replaced with new projects and you may never have the perfect team.
Holding off because of these supposed barriers can cause leaders, managers and employees to end up in a constant state of paralysis, unable to move forward on their goals. It can be tempting to take the opportunity to hide behind the reasons why we shouldn't do something rather than committing to progress.
So, what might be going on here and how can we move past it?
Procrastination occurs when we delay or postpone an action, preventing us from achieving something we’ve set out to achieve. There are usually a range of complex feelings and behaviours going on that lead to avoidance of the task at hand.
One common behaviour I’ve seen recently, given the high levels of uncertainty over the last two years, is for people to stay in their comfort zone. When we feel unsafe or afraid, we are much more likely to stick with the familiar rather than try something new, even if the familiar isn’t really working for us. Working on something we know and understand is easier and more comfortable than working on something unfamiliar. That may be why you’re procrastinating completing a proposal for a prospect, by clearing your inbox instead.
Another factor in procrastination is our inability to put ourselves in the shoes of our future selves. We know we need to do something to meet a future goal or to avoid future consequences, but we’re much better at focussing on the present moment. For example, you might leave preparing for a strategy meeting to the night before, as suddenly the consequences of being unprepared in the meeting feel much more present.
So, how can we work on overcoming procrastination?
I find it helpful to work with clients to identify patterns in procrastination. What are they procrastinating, in which situations and why? A useful exercise for you, if you find you’re procrastinating, is to note down in your diary or on your phone every time you catch yourself procrastinating. This helps identify trends and triggers in what you’re avoiding and opens up a conversation about why.
Another useful process is to break down large tasks into smaller bite size pieces. So rather than putting “redevelop website” on the to do list, put “create brief for website developer, send brief to website developer for a quote etc.” By chunking it down you’re less likely to procrastinate and you won’t feel as overwhelmed by the size of the task. It also means there will be more wins to celebrate which gives you positive momentum and keeps you motivated.
The Eisenhower Matrix
Another helpful exercise is to use the Eisenhower Matrix to better prioritise tasks according to how important and urgent they are.
Quadrant 1 is the tasks that are both important and urgent. Usually those tasks are the “fighting fires” or deadline driven tasks. Quadrant 2 are the tasks that are important but not urgent. That would include business planning. Quadrant 3 are the tasks that are urgent but can be delegated to team members. Quadrant 4 are the tasks that are neither urgent or important such as tasks which are outside your mission or time wasting activities.
The idea is to focus your energy in Quadrant 1 and 2, delegate quadrant 3 and abandon quadrant 4. Utilising the matrix reduces procrastination by immediately highlighting when we’re spending time in the wrong quadrant.
By delegating quadrant 3 you will free up your time to spend on the important things while empowering and upskilling your team. The more time you spend in quadrant 2, the less time you will need to spend in quadrant 1. This will make you more proactive and less reactive.
One of the major factors which contributes to paralysis and can lead to procrastination is perfectionism. Perfectionists strive for things to be flawless. They often see their perfectionism in a positive light; “I’m detail oriented”, “I’m great at catching errors”, “my work is of the highest quality”, “I’m uncompromising.” But there is a dark side to perfectionism too - fixation on the imperfections of themselves and others, being critical of themselves or others and being controlling.
Perfectionists would rather not do something if it can’t be perfect. The trouble with this thinking is that nothing will ever be perfect. That leads to paralysis and stagnation.
So, how can we work on perfectionism?
As Seth Godin says, “Waiting for perfect is never as smart as making progress.” I advise my clients to strive for “good enough” rather than “perfect”. I ask them, what would it look like to complete something at 80%, rather than not complete it at all? It’s always better to start something and then you will have the opportunity to improve upon it if needed, rather than never starting at all. Even if it was possible to complete something at 100% today, circumstances will change and there will be a need to adapt and continually improve down the track. What might appear to be 100% perfect today could be only 70% tomorrow. So aiming for 100% is unreasonable and unnecessary.
Another way to look at it is by recognising the flaws in maintaining the status quo. Perfectionists may actually be maintaining an imperfect situation without realising it.
For example, if you’re waiting to diversify the business until the conditions are perfect, you may not keep up with competitors, eroding your value proposition and ultimately your profitability. That is a far worse outcome than diversifying and adjusting along the way as needed.
Circle of influence vs. circle of concern
A useful exercise for both procrastinators and perfectionists is to review their circle of concern and circle of influence (See ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ by Steven Covey). This will help them break out of paralysis and become more proactive rather than reactive.
The circle of concern includes all the things we worry about that are out of our control. This could be the pandemic, economic volatility, government policy or even decisions made or actions taken in the past. The circle of influence includes all of the things that we have some control over. That could include how we adapt to the things in our control such as pivoting the business to be more resilient throughout the pandemic.
Reactive people or people stuck in a state of paralysis will tend to focus on their circle of concern. They spend energy worrying about the things they can’t control. Proactive people will instead focus on the things they can influence which helps them feel more in control and actually serves to better prepare them to face things outside of their control.
For example, rather than thinking, “we can’t compete with the big players because they have more money and resources than us”, a more useful and proactive approach would be to think, “we do X really well, even though we don’t have the same money and resources as our competitors. Let’s expand X and de-prioritise some other areas where we’re less competitive.”
Another example is a previous client of mine, who was putting everything on hold until he was promoted. He felt like if he could just move up the career ladder, things would finally be easier. Instead, once he was promoted, he had even more on his plate and felt even less in control. We looked at the small and tangible things he could influence to make his life easier. Sometimes it's just the simple things like programming unimportant emails to be automatically filed away, or scheduling regular time for planning, which can free up your time, ensure you’re focussing on the right things and help you feel more in control.
These tools can help you move beyond perfectionism and procrastination and out of paralysis. So, what action are you going to take today to move forward?