Science and Sensibility

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Follow Through on What’s Hardest to Do

How to meet a big-time challenge you've been putting off

When you are afflicted by perfectionism, self-doubts, anxiety, and procrastination, this combination can be very self-sabotaging.   If you feel trapped by this or a similar set of afflictions, you can change course by simultaneously dealing with them all, and gain multiple benefits.

By exploring the following procrastination counseling transcript, you may identify questions to ask yourself about your own procrastinating,  gain insight into a complex procrastination process, and use the information to help yourself start and finish what you find toughest but most pressing to do.

Here is the issue. Ted is in hot water. He's six-months behind on turning in performance reviews for his staff.  He received a final warning that his job is on the line.  Yet Ted continues to delay. He is baffled by how he keeps dodging a task that has become urgent to do. His goal is to get the performance reviews done. (Note: I changed identifying information and edited the transcript to improve readability.)

Bill: Ted, tell me about the performance reviews.

Ted: Dextron keeps me hopping. I'm too busy to get to the reviews. Besides, everyone knows that the reviews are a crock. They're just busywork. They're a waste of time. I can sell and my people can sell, and that's what's important. But I want to keep my job. I can't believe that I let it go this long.

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Bill: That doesn't surprise me. Procrastination is an automatic habit that can go on like it has a life of its own. This is one of the more challenging problem  habits for people to deal with. Practically everyone has at least one area in which he feels burdened by the habit and feels baffled about why he can't just do something to start and finish. This may happen when a change takes place, and for some, adjustments can prove challenging. In your situation, the change was the introduction of the performance review system.

Ted: I'm relieved that you said that. I thought it was just me.

Bill: Let's see if we can figure out what is going on. Let's start with your view that performance reviews are a waste of time.

Ted: Yeah, they are a waste of time. I have better things to do. I shouldn't have to do them.

Bill: What do you do for each review?

Ted: I have to fill out a rating scale and make general comments.

Bill: On average, how long does it take to com­plete each review?

Ted: It takes half an hour to do and-half an hour to give the results.

Bill: So would 20 hours be a realistic estimate for the reviews for all five salespeople and your as­sistant? That would include putting together the information and handling rescheduling issues.

Ted: I should be able to get them done in less time than that.

Bill: So the amount of time it takes isn't as much the problem as what you make of the reviews themselves. Are performance reviews part of every manager's assignment?

Ted: Everyone has to do them.

Bill: I understand that performance reviews have been in place for a few years. What's your under­standing about their use?

Ted: I think we put them into place for several reasons. We had no objective performance stan­dards. We wanted to keep track of how well our people were doing. Our corporate legal consul­tant recommended that we have a way to justify both disciplinary actions and bonuses and pro­motions. She said that our company had grown large enough that we needed a way to be sure that the appraisals were job-related and based on measurable and reasonable standards. It was important for employees to have a pathway to appeal their reviews if they disagreed with the findings. The reviews provide a basis for perfor­mance improvement plans. I guess they make some sense. But I still don't like doing them.

Bill: It sounds like you have a clear understand­ing of their purpose. I agree, you don't have to like every part of a job.

Ted: Okay. Now we are getting somewhere. You've agreed that I don't have to like them.

Bill: Right. But your job is on the line for not doing them.

Ted: I know. I have to get them done. But I shouldn't have to waste my time doing them.

Bill: Should is one of those words with different meanings. One is a reminder: I should remem­ber to buy a loaf of bread. Another is a tyrannical or coercive should. If you think that the reviews are unfairly dumped on you, that they are a waste of time, and that you should not be required to do them, you might view them as taking time away from what you'd like to do and feel resentful and resist doing them. Another view is that you should live up to your standards by doing whatever you undertake perfectly well. So it isn't the word so much as its context and what it means. (Long pause) If you use should as a reminder, you'll probably feel differently from the way you would feel if should meant that you must do performance reviews. Of these three views on should, do any fit?

Ted: (Long pause) It's funny that you put it that way. I think it's two ways. I resent doing them. But I think that if I must do them, I want to make them really meaningful for my people. I want them to make a difference. I want my people to have new insights into how to be super salespeople.

Bill: And when you think you must make your performance reviews meaningful, what follows that thought?

 Ted: I think they'll be disappointed.

Bill: Because?

Ted: (Pause) I won't do well enough. I'll get criticized.

Bill: And how do you feel when you think that way?

Ted: Tense, depressed, miserable.

Bill: It sounds like you have high standards for yourself.

Ted: I've always had high standards. My mom used to call me Mr. Perfect.

Bill: When you think about the performance review and view yourself falling below standard, what do you think about yourself?

Ted: (Pause) Like a loser and a failure.

Bill: Perfectionist thinking involves the idea that if you don't do well enough at what you think you should do, you're a flop. Others will think  ill of you. When you think that way, do you feel anx­ious about the possibility of performing poorly?

Ted: That sounds about right.

Bill: So, you're either a winner or a loser. Is there anything that may lie in between?

Ted: (Laughs) A partial loser?

Bill: It's better to laugh about what lies in be­tween than to take the extremes seriously. But you can also consider that you are a person who is challenged to find a way to break through a procrastination barrier. Meeting the challenge becomes the issue. That gets you away from making character generalizations about yourself, and this may help you fix your focus onto solving the problem. By the way, is there any universal law, other than Ted's law, that requires you to be perfect?

Ted: No. I hadn't thought about it that way. Can I appeal Ted's law and change it?

Bill: Hey, you're the judge who interprets that law. You can change it anytime. Do you think you put off doing the performance reviews to avoid failing?

Ted: It's beginning to sound that way.

Bill: Is having your reviews challenged part of this picture?

Ted: I worry about that.

Bill: What would it mean if you had your reviews challenged by one of your people?

Ted: They'd think I was a jerk. I'd lose respect.

Bill: And what would you think about yourself?

Ted: That I'm a loser.

Bill: You'd have to be a mind reader to know what others think. But even if you were right, and some people thought you were a jerk, would that make you one? I mean, if someone called you a green grasshopper, would you start eating grass?

Ted: (Laughs) I've been called worse than a green grasshopper. I guess what you're saying is that I am exaggerating, but that even if I'm right about what people think, I'm still making too much of it.

(Session continues on next page)

 

Bill: Ted, I think you're right about exaggerating. You may influence but can't control what others think. You probably don't want to go out of your way to cause people to think badly of you. But you can't win them all. Now, what about other managers who sometimes have their reviews appealed? Are they losers?

Ted: No. My friend John had two appeals this go-round. The two people complain a lot. He reported that they complain too much. They complained about that part of the appraisal, and their complaints helped validate John's point. John's not a loser. He's one of the most straight­forward and fair people that I know.

Bill: If John is challenged and still is fair, what would make you a loser if someone challenged your review?

Ted: (Long pause) I hadn't thought about it that way before.

Bill: How so?

Ted: It's hard for me to accept being imperfect. Yet I accept that it is all right and normal for others not to be 100 percent right all the time. Maybe I need to rethink my position.

Bill: How you go about rethinking your position can make a difference. If you work to accept yourself as a fallible person who is working to do better, then you may look at procrastination as an interference that you can work to stop. You'll have plenty of opportunities to practice. The performance reviews will go on. But if you don't want to do them and the performance reviews are part of your job description, what are your options?

Ted: One is to find another job where I won't have to do reviews. Another is to ask for a demo­tion and let someone else do them. I could learn to stop procrastinating on doing my perfor­mance reviews. I'd rather keep my job. There is a lot about it that I like.

Bill: You spit that out pretty quickly. It sounds as if you've given your options some thought.

Ted: Absolutely. But there is only one good option for me: get them done and keep out of hot water in the future.

Bill: Okay, then the goal is to keep your job, and this starts with finishing the reviews and avoid­ing this sort of problem in the future.

Ted: That's my best option.

Bill: Besides should thinking and failure fears that can start procrastination in motion, procrastina­tion can start with any perception that triggers discomfort of any sort. It also can be an indepen­dent problem habit that takes an extra effort to stop. Let's see what's going on when you pro­crastinate. When you think about your perfor­mance reviews coming due, what do you think?

Ted: I feel like I don't want to do them.

Bill: And then?

Ted: I do something different.

Bill: For example?

Ted: You name it. I start filing old sales reports. I call my wife to talk about the kids. I do some joint sales calls. I check the stock market. I meet with other department heads. I sometimes close and lock my office door and nap. I fantasize about buying a business and having others do the performance reviews.

Bill: It sounds as if you've got that part of pro­crastination pinned down.

Ted: Yes. I skimmed your book on procrastina­tion before this meeting. The section on diver­sions got my attention. I said to myself, My God, that is what I do. I think I know I'm procrastinat­ing. It's almost like I'm doing these things with­out thinking about what I'm doing. It's hard to explain. I know I'm sidetracking when I do these things, but I don't seem to be able to stop myself.

Bill: Is there anything that you are aware of before you sidetrack yourself?

Ted: (Pause) My body tightens, and I feel really resistant about starting. Sometimes I feel really tired.

Bill: Do you have any thoughts about the reviews?

Ted: Yeah. Like I said, I start thinking that they're a crock and a waste of time. I know I'll have to do them. I'd just rather do them later.

Bill: And when later comes, what normally happens?

Ted: I continue to put them off.

Bill: Do you think of anything you can do to prepare for the reviews?

Ted: I need to read up more on how to do a better review. Then I'll get to it.

Bill: That's known as the contingency manana way of thinking. You'll get to it after you do something else first, like reading up on reviews. Do you read up on the reviews?

Ted: (Laughs) Nope.

Bill: And when you run out of time with the performance review, what happens?

Ted: I ask for an extension. I say I was too busy helping salespeople and customers. I ran out of time.

Bill: What happens then?

Ted: I get into hot water. I'm six months behind on the reviews. No one believes me.

Bill: Ted, what have you gotten out of what we've talked about so far?

Ted: I feel uncomfortable about the reviews. Rather than starting them, I do something differ­ent. I end up with my back to the wall, making up excuses that my boss doesn't believe. I think that I have to stop telling myself that I'll get to the reviews later.

Bill: It will normally take more than an awareness of this process to get the performance reviews started and finished. But you have to start some­where if you expect to finish the reviews. What can you do to start the ball rolling?

Ted: I'll get to work an hour early and start writ­ing. I won't go home at night unless one report is done.

Bill: Is that a new idea?

Ted: No. I've told myself I'd do that before.

Bill: How has that worked?

Ted: It hasn't.

Bill: You could try that approach again and apply what you've learned today. Simultaneously, you could work on your perfectionism, specifically your belief that a less than perfect performance review defines you as a loser. To keep perspec­tive, you can match that belief against what you said about John. As an alternative to perfection­ist thinking, look for evidence to support a view that you are a person who is in the process of development and that it will take time and prac­tice to improve your ability to do reviews.

Ted: I like the idea that we are in phases of devel­opment. That feels better.

Bill: Changing the procrastination process can be challenging. To start, you could leave a mes­sage on my answering unit to say what you learned each day about dealing with performance reviews. You could say something about your progress, and what you did to deal with your dis­comfort avoidance urges, procrastination think­ing, and diversions. If you hit a snag, we could discuss it on the phone.

Ted: It's interesting that I'm worried about wast­ing time and then I waste time worrying. I get it about perfectionism and either-or thinking. I'll do at least one review a day and call you if I start to procrastinate.

Bill: As you approach the performance reviews, think about what you do when you procrastinate. By tracking this process, you can make it less automatic and put yourself in a position to evalu­ate and change it. The issue is the performance reviews. When you think of the reviews, you feel uncomfortable or fatigued. You tell yourself that they're a waste of time. But that sounds like sub­terfuge. It sounds more like a fear of doing an imperfect job and getting criticized. Your perfec­tionism sounds like a main issue, where you make your worth depend on your performance and you set yourself up to fail by avoiding the task. It sounds to me like the performance re­views are a threat to you. The diversions distract you from what you fear. There is a practical issue of getting the performance reviews done to keep your job. The perfectionism issue seems to be in the way. What do you think?

Ted: I get it. I can see why you said that procras­tination can be baffling. I've had my eyes glued to the trees and couldn't see the forest.

(Session continues on the next page)

Bill: It seems to me that you have an opportunity to do two things at the same time. You can work on your perfectionism as you work on the perfor­mance reviews. You could get a double benefit for yourself. You can help yourself get rid of two sources of stress, procrastination and perfection­ism. While we were talking, I mapped out a way for you to attack perfectionism as you take on the performance reviews. (I handed Ted a framework that gave him a customized way to improve his performance on performance reviews.)

Ted: (Pauses and reads the material) Okay, I like the idea that I can make two gains.

Bill: Our time is nearly up. Are there any ques­tions you want to ask?

Ted: Nope. I've got a lot to think about and performance reviews to do. Same time next week?

Bill: See you then.

During the course of his counseling, Ted finished the performance reviews and saved his job. He was the first to finish the following year. This is a typical outcome for successful procrastination counseling program.

This procrastination counseling example appears in appendix 1 of End Procrastination Now!  The book has added information: 1. my comments about each phase of this process. 2. A summary of the additional steps Ted took.  If you want to know more about antidotes for procrastination, you can listen to a free Podcast of my first Internet workshop on procrastination at   www.smartrecovery.libsyn.org.  A free, brief, eBook accompanied the workshop: Beat Procrastination Now.  Visit me on Facebookwww.facebook.com/BillKnaus on overcoming procrastination and other topics of general interest.

© Dr. Bill  Knaus

 

 

Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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