Friday, February 19, 2010

Why are My Toilets Always Dirty? The Art of Procrastination

I no longer work fulltime (or more) in a corporate job. I’m my own boss, and I can work whenever I want. I rarely set my alarm.

So I should have lots of time to clean the toilets, right?

As a working mother with a demanding work schedule I had a rigid home schedule in place for the weekends. Cleaning and household chores were sandwiched between sports events at school and the occasional movie night. Laundry started Saturday morning and ran continuously during the weekend. If any family members missed getting their dirty clothing into the laundry basket by Saturday morning they’d have to wait another week to get it done (and they knew it). Grocery shopping was on Sunday afternoons.

So why, then, are my toilets always dirty now?

It’s because I can clean them tomorrow. Because I have all the flexibility I could ever want, there is no driving need to clean them this weekend. I can clean them whenever I want.

It’s that nasty procrastination gene kicking in.

In my very first corporate job I was responsible for answering customer calls and debugging software problems. These calls came in electronically (yes, even then – this was an IT company after all). We worked by priority and handled the calls as they came in. One day, I had completed all the calls on the queue except one. My boss stopped by my office (remember the days when the bosses walked around?) to check in. I noted the light day, and explained that I was saving the last call for tomorrow. She suggested I do it today and I said, “But if I take the call today, there won’t be anything to do tomorrow.” Yeah, I really said that. Luckily, it didn’t hurt my career.

It’s difficult to drive yourself to complete work.

It’s also very difficult for managers to drive employees to complete work. When there is a hard deadline (like a launch date, or a product release date) or when an incentive structure is in place (as in most sales jobs) – when there is an impending event or reward it’s easier to drive tasks to completion. The ‘just do it’ gene kicks in because success depends on it. I have had many jobs where this is the case, but there have also been many times when it’s been up to me to decide the schedule or drive the team. And in those times, it’s harder to put the procrastination gene and the perfection gene aside. The same is true today as I drive my own projects.

How do you decide when a project is really ready to go? What are your strategies for driving tasks to completion when no external force is driving you?


Anonymous said...

My strategy to drive tasks to completion with no external driving force is, "What do I want to do?" and then to absorb myself in it completely. I only do the "What do I have to do's?" (such as cleaning toilets) when it's really a "have to do." I usually tackle the havetodo's first and as quickly as possible so I can get to more of the wanttodo's. No sense wasting time in procrastinating with dontwanttodo's.

Colette said...

Anonymous -- that's a great suggestion on how to think about it -- want to do's, have to do's, and don't want to do's.

Anonymous said...

When it's a returning chore, ritualize. When I was on a 3 year stint in Switzerland, I cleaned my 60sqm appartment every 2 weeks from top to bottom, including toilets (inside and outside) in a very precise order from least dirty till dirtiest. The time used (after getting to the most efficient way of working) remained very constant (3 hours), and I could start no later than 9am. by setting all these small sub-goals and constraints you funnel yourself into an agentic state where you 'just do it' and where you feel very uncomfortable when procrastrinating around it. For the mind, it are 3 hours of holiday.

I haven't found a solution yet for one-time efforts, like the business plan I am writing now.

Colette said...

Rituals -- great idea! That does work for me here -- my plan to post a new column every week actually works!

Anonymous said...

Parkinson's Law: "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion."

Greg said...

Wow - direct hit. I left a 24/5 job 2 months ago and although now I am doing only things I like (like learning Spanish and coaching training) I HAVE NO TIME. I feel I have less time now then when I had to ruthlessly cram all my personal stuff into the weekend. You may have discovered how the universe works.

Colette said...

Greg, isn't it amazing how busy you can be when you are doing things you really want to do? I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels that way!