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Management by Coaching

Procrastination: Are you postponing your success?

How to unlearn a learned behavior

By Kimberly Paterson, CEC

You're down to the wire on an important project that's been sitting at the top of your "to-do" list for weeks. The blank computer screen stares back, defying you to find something intelligent to say. You get up and grab another cup of coffee, telling yourself it will get the juices flowing. Back at your desk, the screen is still blank. The silence is broken by the ping of an incoming e-mail. Like Pavlov's dog, you respond and click on your inbox. A few minutes later, you hear two of your employees arguing in the break room next door. You get up to go see what the problem is. Back at your desk yet again, you still haven't written a word. You abandon the project for today, telling yourself it will be easier if you start fresh tomorrow morning.

In a world full of distractions, conflicting priorities and tasks we'd rather avoid, we all procrastinate. With some of us it's situational; with others it's chronic. For the 20% of Americans who are chronic procrastinators, this trait affects all areas of their lives. They don't get their work done on time. They are late for appointments. They pay their bills late. They file income tax returns late. They leave their Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve.

In my work of coaching insurance professionals, I see my fair share of procrastination. Over the years, I've learned that the procrastination habit isn't limited to struggling under-achievers. Intelligent high performers are equally prone to inaction. Everyone suffers from procrastination to some degree, so is it really a problem?

The cost of procrastination

Procrastination carries a price tag, and in some cases it can be a hefty one. When we leave jobs until the last minute, quality and efficiency suffer. What would have been a simple task with adequate lead time turns into a full-blown crisis. Others are often forced to help us pick up the burden. Over time, this behavior builds resentment, chips away at relationships and ultimately destroys teamwork.

It doesn't stop there. Research shows that procrastinating is bad for our health. Whether it's the pressure created by leaving things until the last minute or the frustration and loss of self-esteem that comes from failing to meet our goals, putting things off increases our stress level, which in turn weakens our immune system.

The real cost of procrastination, however, is far more subtle. In putting off until tomorrow or next year what we know we should act on today, we are sabotaging our success. And one way or another, it is costing us in our career, business, relationships, finances and overall well being.

Why we procrastinate

On the surface, procrastination often looks like laziness or a time management problem. However, scratching beneath the surface reveals that the two major drivers of procrastination are fear and difficulty regulating our emotions.

We avoid action out of fear. Fear of failing, fear of success, fear of rejection, fear of ruffling feathers, fear of looking foolish, or fear that we will be exposed for not being as smart as people think we are. And so our fears drive us to hang on to the hope that if we procrastinate long enough, our misgivings will magically evaporate—and be replaced with a new-found sense of clarity about the steps we need to take, the courage to take them and the confidence to overcome whatever obstacles we meet along the way.

Sadly, the opposite is true. The longer we put off taking action, the more apprehensive we become. Our inability to move forward weighs heavily on our minds and hearts, both consciously and subconsciously.

When fear isn't the issue, difficulty regulating our emotions often is. Freud said that we are guided by the pleasure principle. Let's face it: We all like to have fun, and it's hard to do something we don't want to do. We avoid the unpleasant tasks because we want to feel good. Making ourselves feel good in the short term simply takes precedence over our long-term goals.

The good news is that procrastinators are made and not born. It's a learned behavior, and what's learned can be unlearned. When we understand what's behind the behavior and employ deliberate strategies to manage it, we can avoid becoming our own worst enemies.

The 11th-hour producer

Consider the case of Mark, whom I coach—a young and promising producer. Mark tops the leader board when it comes to identifying new business opportunities, getting in the door and building relationships. But when it comes to organizing a submission and proposal on a new piece a business, he is the worst of the agency's six producers. Mark's submissions always come in at the 11th hour. They are sloppy and missing key pieces of information. The agency support staff always complains that there is never enough time to properly market his accounts. Mark's accounts seldom get the agency's best effort and, as a result, he loses a high percentage of deals he could probably close.

Mark's late submissions aren't about poor time management. He knows how much time the process takes; he just hates that part of his job and puts it off as long as he can. Like most procrastinators, Mark is great at lying to himself. He protects his sense of self by saying the paperwork is not important; he can get by on his winning personality and being fast on his feet. He tells himself that he'll feel more like doing his applications tomorrow and that he works best under pressure. The reality is the urge never comes and he doesn't do his best work under pressure.

The fix

Procrastinators who avoid necessary tasks simply because they don't like doing them benefit from having structured interim deadlines rather than being left to their own devices. New research indicates that how a manager sets deadlines has a profound effect on the timeliness and accuracy of employees' work product. Researchers Klaus Wertenbroch and Dan Ariely conducted a series of experiments in which they asked participants to perform tasks under different deadline scenarios. In one experiment, three groups of people were asked to complete a complex proofreading assignment. 

The first group was given a single deadline, three weeks out, for completing all the work. The second group was given a series of interim, weekly deadlines for completing portions of the job. Members of the third group were told to set their own interim deadlines. Participants were paid according to the number of errors they corrected and were penalized for missed deadlines. The results showed dramatic differences in both the timeliness and the quality of the work performed by the three groups.

The worst performance on both counts was turned in by the group with a single, end-of-project deadline. Their work, on average, was 12 days late, and they corrected an average of only 70 errors. The best performance was delivered by the group that was given a series of interim deadlines. Their work was only 0.5 day late on average, and they caught 136 errors. The performance of the group that set its own interim deadlines fell in the middle: 6.5 days late on average, with 104 errors caught.

The avoider

Rachel is an energetic, smart and seasoned insurance professional. Over the years she's built a good book of business, but falling premiums and heavy competition are taking their toll on her accounts. Rachel knows she needs to devote more time to bringing in new business, but with the constant demands of her clients she can't seem to find time to prospect.

In coaching Rachel, it's clear that finding the time isn't the challenge. Rachel avoids making her new business calls because she's afraid. Though she won't admit it, she's afraid people will hang up on her, afraid she won't be competitive if she gets an opportunity to quote, afraid she won't be successful writing new business no matter how hard she tries.

The fix

Pressuring Rachel to make her sales calls won't change her results. She'd rather be chastised for not making her calls than be viewed as an unsuccessful producer. The reality for many people is that "won't" is a lot easier to deal with than "can't."

The key for Rachel is facing, rather than avoiding, her fear. Once she identifies and confronts her fear, she can develop effective strategies for working through it. For example, is Rachel afraid based on irrational beliefs about what might happen? If so, those beliefs need to be challenged. Or are her skills weak because she's out of practice doing cold calling? If this is the obstacle, she may need refresher sales training to get her skills and confidence back.

That's important, but…

Tyler is the young, ambitious CEO of a growing independent agency in the Southeast. Due to a series of successful acquisitions, the agency has doubled in size over the past three years. Integrating three disparate cultures into one unified organization is a recurring theme in my coaching sessions with Tyler. Despite his repeated pronouncements that this is his priority, he has yet to take action. Every week he has a different excuse for why he hasn't moved forward.

The fix

For Tyler, the problem isn't fear, lack of know-how or avoiding a task he finds unpleasant. Tyler's barrier to action is that he hasn't really committed to doing the integration. Unifying the three cultures is a "should" for Tyler—something he's being urged to do by several colleagues and a well-respected agency consultant. Deep down, he's not really convinced that the cultures need to be blended. Each of the three agencies is profitable and operates in different specialties and geographic territories.

The key here is the source of the motivation. We generally don't need to prioritize or otherwise force or trick ourselves into performing actions that are internally motivated. When the motivation comes from an external source, we are less likely to act on it.

Tyler needs to assess his own motivation for acting by answering two fundamental questions: What's in it for him if he does it, and what will happen to him if he doesn't? If he can find no internal motivation—no significant benefit for doing the job or no penalty for not doing it—it's time to stop kidding himself and get it off the priority list.

Managing procrastination

We all procrastinate; it's part of the human condition. The key is paying attention to what we procrastinate about. Are we procrastinating about inconsequential tasks that have little impact on our confidence, work and relationships with others, or are we procrastinating about things that ultimately affect how we see ourselves and our ability to achieve what's important to us?

There are many ways to maximize our success and our day-to-day enjoyment of life, but the most sure-fire way just might be to overcome the habit of procrastination.

What You Need to Know About Procrastination

Whether you're a procrastinator yourself or you're managing someone who is one, here is what you need to know:

• We all procrastinate, but for one in five people it is a chronic problem that impacts every area of their lives.

• Businesses pay a hefty price tag for procrastina- tion in the form of lost opportunity, poor quality, inefficiency and damaged relationships.

• Procrastination isn't about laziness or poor time man- agement. It is the result of fear or difficulty regulating one's emotions.

• Telling a procrastinator to use a calendar to better manage this or her time is like telling someone who is depressed to cheer up.

• There is no procrastination gene. It is a learned behav- ior. What's learned can be unlearned.

• Kicking the procrastination habit begins with under- standing why you do it and then implementing targeted strategies that will change your behavior.

The author

Kimberly Paterson is a business and Certified Energy Leadership Coach. She is president of CIM (, where she works with insurance organizations to build the vision, strategy, insight and leadership skills to energize people to achieve outstanding results. She can be reached at


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