Tag Archives: skills

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,


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.
Crucial Conversations QA

Dealing with Resentment at Work

Dear Crucial Skills,

In our hospital, we have a person who made a grave mistake during surgery. As the manager’s pet, she was not disciplined or reprimanded, but anyone else would have been fired on the spot. The rest of the staff noticed the special treatment given to this individual and are extremely resentful. How do I, as one of those staff members, interact with the offending person without letting my resentment show?

Resentful Coworker

Dear Resentful,

We studied this very problem in our research, Silence Kills, and found that 84 percent of healthcare professionals observe colleagues take dangerous shortcuts when working with patients and yet less than 10 percent speak up about their concerns.

I applaud you for raising your concerns. Nobody wants to work in an atmosphere of resentment that could compromise your paramount concern of patient safety. However, the situation you describe is complicated. There are many parties and probably many perspectives on the same set of facts. Let’s begin by examining your concerns.

1. Ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Think about what you want long-term for yourself, the other person, and for your relationship. This is what I learned from your question:

  • You want fairness and justice. You think your peer is “the manager’s pet,” receives “special treatment,” and perhaps should have been disciplined, reprimanded, or even fired.
  • You want to make sure your team provides patients with the safest, best care possible.
  • You want a positive set of relationships so people don’t feel resentment toward one another.

2. Master your stories. Each of these concerns is based on a set of facts and/or a series of incidents, including the mistake that happened during surgery. But different staff members, and your manager, may interpret these same facts in different ways. All of you are telling yourselves stories about what these facts mean.

Treat your story as a story, not as a fact. Your story should be your best, most honest interpretation of what the facts mean. But also look out for what we call “clever stories”—interpretations that let you off the hook for feeling resentful and letting your feelings show.

Interrogate your story with two questions: a) “Do I really have all the facts I need to be certain my story is true?” and b) “Is there any other story that could fit this same set of facts?” Let’s examine two of the stories you’re telling yourself:

Your story about fairness and justice: What are the facts or incidents that combine to make you tell yourself a story about injustice? How confident are you that your story is true? Here are a few questions to consider:

It sounds as if you are holding your peer accountable for not being disciplined. Shouldn’t that concern be with your manager more than with your peer?

I wonder whether you and your manager are telling yourselves different stories about the “grave mistake.” Your manager may not have witnessed the mistake and that may mean he/she has less information. On the other hand, your manager may have interviewed your colleague as well as others who were there and this information might be both important and confidential.

Your story about patient safety: Any time you have a concern about patient safety you need to deal with it. It’s one of those non-negotiables. However, before you have this crucial conversation, examine your story.

It would be easy to tell yourself the story that your manager is putting friendship above patient safety. That would be a very troubling conclusion. But is it true?

In the old days, errors were often blamed on whoever touched the patient last. Every error was considered “operator error.” Then the pendulum swung toward “system error.” Errors and near misses were seen as caused by faulty processes and procedures rather than individuals. Of course, sensible people demand both capable systems and capable individuals. Neither is sufficient by itself. Do you see how this interplay complicates the stories you and your manager tell about the very same incident?

I don’t have enough information to know whose story is closer to the truth. But I think there is a lot of room for people who value fairness, justice, and patient safety to disagree. Have this conversation with your manager, but don’t assume he or she has bad intentions.

3. Start with the facts, then tentatively share your story. Take the time to prepare for this conversation. Try writing it out as a script and then review it to make sure you:

  • Avoid accusations or any “hot” words or phrases.
  • Begin with your good intentions—what it is you really want. Explain that this conversation is about patient safety. That is your mutual purpose.
  • Start with the facts. These facts include the incidents you are fairly sure you and your manager will agree on. This is your common ground.
  • Tentatively tell your story. Draw the pattern these facts are forming for you. But remember, your manager may see the facts—and almost certainly sees the pattern—differently than you do. Be careful to be respectful of your manager’s story.
  • Stop so that your manager can share his or her perspective. Understand that some of the facts your manager has are likely to be confidential.

I also encourage you to review our latest study, The Silent Treatment, at www.silenttreatmentstudy.com or register for The Silent Treatment learning series to learn how to solve critical communication breakdowns and avoid dangerous mistakes in the hospital.