As a species, we humans either move toward pleasure or away from pain. Reductionist as that might sound, it nonetheless explains a huge portion of our behavior. And it is quite helpful in understanding the scourge of procrastination. My time management coaching with lawyers confirms what the research shows: there are two main dynamics that lead to procrastination. The first is a condition from which many attorneys suffer: working best under pressure. The adrenaline of a near-term deadline creates internal stress that leads to heightened energy and focus. Protestations to contrary, this pressurized rush is effective (if not even pleasurable) in some significant way, and is reinforced each time you succeed in accomplishing a task when in its grasp. The second dynamic has to do with pain-avoidance.
Unlike the first dynamic, these kinds of tasks are often inherently unpleasant. It’s not that you need psychic pressure to focus on the thing; rather, it’s that you’d just prefer to not deal with it under any circumstance, pressured or not (e.g., the fork-in-the-road opinion letter on the weak case you wish you hadn’t taken, that difficult client’s aging receivable, the colleague whose performance is increasingly worrisome). Most people intellectually understand the paradox that this kind of procrastination increases the pain associated with the very thing being avoided. What we’re less aware of is the negative psychic weight that seeps into and subtly diminishes our everyday functioning. Confidence and clarity go down. Guilt and stress go up in the wake of pain-avoidant procrastination.
Of the two dynamics, the first – needing pressure to get the job done – is far more complicated and requires significantly more introspection and effort to modulate. The second, fortunately, isn’t nearly as difficult to tackle. So here’s what to do: Throttle up your courage and identify the biggest thing — the Biggest Yuk — in your practice or your firm that you’re avoiding. Look it square in the eye and resolve to handle it. Think it through, list in writing what you already know needs to be done, and take at least the first step this week. By taking action on the Yuks you’ve been avoiding, your confidence will increase in all areas of your professional (and personal) life. You may still procrastinate on some things for which you need that competitive kick of a deadline, but you can learn to handle unpleasant tasks in a timely manner — and thus reap the benefits of doing so.