Tag Archives: performance review

Change Anything QA

Overcoming Procrastination

Dear Crucial Skills,

I tend to procrastinate overwhelming work projects until the last minute and know this bad habit is keeping me from advancing in my career. I feel like I’ve tried everything, but nothing has helped. I don’t know how to change. Can you help me?

Habitual Procrastinator

Dear Procrastinator,

Funny you should ask. I’ve managed to put off writing my response to you for three weeks now! But I’m flying home from Chicago and our editor, Angela, is firmly but politely requesting I get off my rear—so here goes.

We recently found that procrastination is a pretty pervasive problem. In fact, it is one of the top three Career-Limiting Habits we identified in a recent study. For some, these habits have cost them pay or promotions. But even those who can’t count an absolute cost of the habit acknowledge they could have achieved significantly more in their career if it hadn’t been for this chronic weakness.

I fall into the category of people who can point to specific losses caused by procrastination. At age seventeen, a partner and I wrote one of the first accounting applications for the newly emerging microcomputer industry. It was an instant success with our immediate clients, and I knew that if I would invest time standardizing the software and creating high-quality documentation for it, we could make millions. I didn’t. And within a year, a competitor went to market in that uncontested space and cashed in. Live and learn, eh?

But the good news is I’ve discovered a few simple sources of influence that have a remarkable effect on my energy, focus, and productivity in these crucial moments. I also got an enormous number of responses on our Crucial Skills blog and on Facebook from clever readers who have found their own ways to kick this habit.

Without further delay, here are some ideas:

Make It Motivating

  • Make it a game. Even noxious tasks become engaging when we give them the characteristics of a game: focus, time limit, and a scoreboard. When I sit down to work, I make my scoreboard. I write down the number of things I want to get done before I relax. I limit my list to the number of things I can reasonably accomplish. It’s remarkable how motivating it is to check things off my list. Several readers actually use a timer. I think that’s a great idea to increase the “game” sense of focus, and to link the experience to a promise of reward.
  • Repeat motivating statements. A couple of readers keep motivating statements at hand that help them reframe the decision they’re making in their crucial moment. Suzy said, “My favorite procrastination advice is, ‘If you have to eat a frog today, do it first. If you have to eat three frogs today, eat the biggest one first.'” Donald added, “I put this note on my PC: ‘Production Before Perfection’ to remind myself to create something even if it is imperfect and then focus on perfection.”

Build Skills

  • Read a book. Lots of people have found useful tools in books that help them increase and focus their mental energy more effectively. Some favorites were The NOW Habit by Neil Fiore, The Procrastination Equation by Piers Steel, and Getting Things Done by David Allen.
  • Treat productivity like a skill. Pick a small amount of time to focus your attention, then stop. Brett said, “Here’s a mantra I’ve found very effective at battling my own tendency to procrastinate. It’s four simple words: Make progress every day. Once I get started on something, even if it’s with the mental goal of saying ‘I’m only going to do this one thing for fifteen minutes’, it often leads to more. When it doesn’t, at least I have the satisfaction that I did indeed make some progress that day.”

Get Support

  • Find a friend. Barb shared an experience where she learned from a friend: “You can learn to overcome [procrastination] by pairing with someone who has a different style. My boss, the ultimate procrastinator, and I worked together for many years. We made a great team. Instead of being a thorn in one another’s side, we used one another as a means of support and a sense of balance in how we approached our work. He knew he could count on me to develop a quick plan and start executing. I learned there are advantages to letting some things percolate so you don’t have to retrace old ground as projects often get redirected midstream.”
  • Set boundaries with others. One reader recommended setting aside time to deal with problems: “A large part of managing yourself is managing who is allowed to interrupt you and when. One of the techniques I now employ is a ‘problem hour.’ As e-mails, phone calls, or other issues interrupt me, I push them to my problem hour. If the issues arise after my problem hour, it’s assigned to the next day’s problem hour.”

Reward Yourself

  • Plan fun. Cecelia uses rewards to motivate herself: “My two favorite ways to deal with procrastination balance short- and long-term rewards. Sometimes going to my home office to work feels like being sent to my room. To change that mindset, I focus on how much better life is going to be once the task I’d rather avoid is over.”
  • Pick a treat. Erin rewards herself by taking a break: “Dedicate an hour to a difficult task and then reward yourself by going to get a Starbucks coffee, or by having a chat with a coworker as a break.”

Structure for Success
Lots of readers used structural tricks to help make productivity easier. In fact, you’ll recognize lots of structural ideas even in the other sources of influence I listed above. Here are some favorites:

  • Break it down. Divide big things into manageable amounts, then decide what manageable part you will accomplish next. Jim shares this story: “My mother died eight years ago and I received forty boxes of stuff to sort through. Three months ago, I started filing or discarding one box a week.” Thinking about one box is motivating. Forty is overwhelming.
  • Leave some fun for next time. One trick I use with writing tasks is to never stop until I am on a roll. I make sure that, when I pause my writing, I know what I want to write next—so getting restarted will be easier. If, on the other hand, I finish a complete idea, I’ll have to start next time with the painful experience of figuring out what is next. Pause your work at a place that makes restarting feel motivating.
  • Make an appointment with yourself. Erin also recommends you “Schedule slots of time into your schedule similar to a meeting time. Then make sure that time is dedicated only to the task. Schedule the most unwanted tasks first thing. By the afternoon, you are out of energy and more likely to procrastinate.”
  • Build fences. Create an environment where you won’t be distracted. For example, turn off e-mail notifications, put your phone where you can’t see or hear it, close your door, and put in earphones. Some people even use software that shuts down internet access to help reduce wandering impulses.

Don’t overwhelm yourself by trying to do everything on this list at once—just pick an idea or two, experiment with it, and act like a scientist examining your own behavior as you see what makes you feel more motivated and productive.

It’s worked miracles for me. I never made millions on microcomputer software—but I finished this column!

Thank you to everyone who shared suggestions. If you have any other ideas you’d like to share, please post them on the blog.

Best wishes,

Change Anything QA

Deliberate Practice Makes Perfect

Dear Crucial Skills,

I need to improve my writing skills, but I’m too busy writing to take the time. My job is in marketing and I write position papers, sales materials, and product descriptions. My long-term goal is to write a nonfiction book, but I don’t have time to take a writing class. Being a better writer will launch my career and get me closer to achieving my dream. Help!

Writer’s Block

Dear Writer’s Block,

Fortunately, there is a lot you can do to improve your writing skills without enrolling in a regular class. The time it takes to become a better writer is not driven by the number of hours spent in a classroom, but by the number of hours spent in deliberate practice. Mounds of recent research shows the predictor of mastery of almost any skill you can imagine—surgery, writing, mountain unicycling, chess, public speaking—is not some genetic endowment but rather the number of hours you spend in a very specific kind of practice.

A classroom can be a useful place to get deliberate practice, but unfortunately, many teachers get in the way of this process as much as they enable it. So don’t despair that you can’t take the time to head to night class right now. You can still get started. Here’s what you have to do to use deliberate practice to accelerate your progress toward your dream.

1. Break the skill into small parts. In other words, don’t practice “writing,” practice a specific aspect of writing that you think is important to your advancement. For example, you may decide that your use of language is too dull and you want to spice it up. The subset of “writing” you want to work on is using more vivid language, metaphors, or engaging prose. Later, you could pick another sub-skill of writing, but find one place to begin.

2. Practice in short, intensive intervals. The great thing about deliberate practice is that it doesn’t take long periods of time. In fact, if you’re doing it right, you can’t really practice for more than an hour or so at a time. I once watched world-class dancers from the Royal Ballet in London working on some of the discrete parts of a particular dance. Rather than practice the entire performance, they worked on one 30-second segment that was giving them challenges over and over again. They also forced themselves to quit and take a break after about 20 minutes of very intense practice.

You should do the same by creating a small, structured practice opportunity. For example, decide that each day, you will write a one-page essay on something that happened at work. You’ll take some anecdote from your day and bring it to life such as: “Strategies I used to keep alert during a two-hour project review.”

3. Get feedback against a clear standard. In order to turn practice into deliberate practice, you need clear and immediate feedback. The Royal Ballet dancers didn’t simply go through their routines again and again, they had a coach—a master dancer—who literally stopped them after a single jump and gave immediate feedback about the angle of their head or the bending of a wrist. They immediately did the jump again and you could see instant progress. Far from being disruptive, this kind of real-time feedback allowed them to analyze and adjust their performance far more rapidly, resulting in substantial improvement.

You can do the same with your practice. I encourage you to get a coach—a trusted friend who is also a good judge of writing—who will read your one-page paper and be mercilessly honest with you about verbiage that is trite, clumsy, or uninteresting, and tell you when you have nailed it. After you receive feedback, rewrite that single page—focusing on one specific aspect of your writing—and watch how quickly your skills improve. I had just this kind of coach early in my writing career. His name is Kerry Patterson, my long-time friend and coauthor. Go find your Kerry!

Many people want to be writers. The difference between those who become good writers and those who don’t is summed up by a sign a colleague kept in his office—Writers write.

Don’t wait for a sabbatical, a class, or until some other grand moment arrives. Just start deliberately practicing. Today!

Best wishes,


Crucial Applications: How to Overcome a Career-Limiting Habit

We recently completed a study which reveals the top five Career-Limiting Habits (CLHs) that cause employees to miss out on raises and promotions. According to the study, 97 percent of employees report they have some habit that keeps them from achieving their potential at work.


The Top 5 Career-Limiting Habits:

1. Unreliability
2. “It’s not my job”
3. Procrastination
4. Resistance to change
5. Negative attitude

Other CLHs that limit employees’ progression include: disrespect, short-term focus, selfishness, passive aggressiveness, and risk aversion.

The research found that these habits are the main obstacle to career advancement. Nearly half of bosses report that addressing employees’ glaring bad habit is three times more important than increasing their technical skills. Unfortunately, bosses also report that only 10 to 20 percent of their employees actually make profound and lasting changes to their CLH.

Despite this, the study found there are predictable paths to success for employees who want to reverse their CLH. Here are some tips for shaping better habits for career success:

  1. Create a Personal Motivation Statement. When you hit a motivational wall while changing your work habits, motivate yourself by visiting your “default future”—the career you’ll have if you are repeatedly passed up for promotion.
  2. Invest in professional development. New habits always require new skills. Top performers hone their craft. Actively develop the skills you need to be viewed as a top performer through training, workshops, or books—but make sure this is only one part of a bigger change strategy.
  3. Hang with the hard workers. The Career-Limiting Habits that keep you back are likely enabled, tolerated, or encouraged by others. Use positive peer pressure by surrounding yourself with hard-working friends who share your career goals. Distance yourself from the office slackers.
  4. Find a mentor. Changing habits requires help. Find a trusted mentor to encourage your progression and help you navigate the career development opportunities that exist within the organization.
  5. Put skin in the game. Reward yourself for reaching short-term goals by placing money at risk. For example, if you reach your goal in your next performance review you can purchase a reward with the money you set aside. However, if you fall short, the money goes to support the political party you oppose.
  6. Control your workspace. Make your new habits easier by enlisting the power of your surroundings. If you’d benefit from close association with another team, ask to move offices. When possible, turn off electronic interruptions that keep you from being as productive as you need to be to move ahead.