Guest blog by Nicol Cutts – Head of Project Management
Back in October 2021, my colleague David, wrote a blog titled “Is post pandemic procrastination paralysing progress in your projects?” The premise of the post was that the pandemic, and the massive break to our hard-wired routines it caused during lockdowns, had created a perfect breeding ground for procrastination.
Rereading David’s blog, I believe it still to be so. Procrastination is one of the many nasties left over from the pandemic.
Confession time … My name is Nicol.
I … sometimes …… procrastinate. I think you do too!
THE RATIONAL DECISION-MAKER, INSTANT GRATIFICATION MONKEY AND THE PANIC MONSTER
“Wait But Why” founder Tim Urban’s TED Talk on procrastination has had over 50.6 million views on YouTube, ironically mostly watched by people like me, who, at the time, probably had many more pressing things to be cracking on with. It was shared with me by Stoneseed’s Managing Director Jamie Buttle – I’m really not sure what he was implying!
The video is so relatable. Tim Urban talks about his approach to time management in his college days when he would plan to start early and do a little a day – but then cramming everything into the last day. I remember doing all my homework set for the weekend on a Sunday night, it’s the same energy – in fact I still shudder if I hear the theme tune to tv show “The Last of The Summer Wine” which always used to be on!
Tim then talks about getting set his senior thesis, a paper you’re supposed to spend a year on, he knew that his normal workflow was not an option for this big project, and so he planned the year but, as Tim fesses, “One day I woke up, with three days until the deadline, still not having written a word, and so I did the only thing I could. I wrote 90 pages over 72 hours, pulling not one but two all-nighters!”
In his hilarious video, Tim introduces us to the idea that our brain has three inhabitants.
THE RATIONAL DECISION-MAKER – who decides it’s time to get stuff done towards your deadline.
THE INSTANT GRATIFICATION MONKEY – whose mission is to sidetrack you into watching YouTube!
THE PANIC MONSTER – who emerges at the last minute to scare the monkey up into his tree and allow you to get that stuff done!
The video is funny! You can watch it here and get Tim’s serious message at the end – that your lifecycle is short. Ultimately, everything has a deadline.
And that brings us neatly round to IT Projects.
Procrastination is a killer for IT Projects. That statement above, “everything has a deadline”, is so true for what we do! We all know the damage that scope creep can do to the timeline of a project, so why do we allow self-inflicted mission creep in the form of, equally destructive, procrastination? In my experience there are maybe five main project procrastination “dark playgrounds”, as Tim Urban calls them:
1 – Good old-fashioned delaying starting a task. The pandemic is to blame for this! You were incredibly disciplined working from home but occasionally the fridge would call your name and you’d be off!). Some tips on this at the end!
2 – Reluctance to accept your team has a capability/talent gap. This is quite common. I mean, who takes on a project and starts without it being fully resourced? You can’t admit, three months in, that you need extra or different resources! Can you? Well, yes you can. Post pandemic, the broader business landscape is as changeable as the weather. If you set off on a journey, and it snowed, but you tried to carry on wearing the open toe sandals you set out in – you’d never reach your destination. On your project journey, it’s ok to acknowledge you need extra skills. (Off the record, between you and I, sometimes projects do start with the wrong talent in the wrong roles. In these scenarios too, it’s best to make the necessary adjustment!) Stoneseed’s Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) was made for these scenarios.
3 – Failure to identify that scope/mission creep could have changed the realistic delivery date. Scope creep still happens, according to some teams – now more than ever! Projects that have to pivot to chase business relevance or incorporate a great stake holder idea are never the same after. You don’t want Tim Urban’s Panic Monster to be the one to tell you that you’re going to be late – the day before you were meant to deliver. Be open and honest and decisive, if things have changed and you have to extend the delivery date – so be it. If changes mean that you need different competences, demand the extra budget so you can call in those Project Management as a Service (PMaaS) resources (you can dial them down and dial them up according to your need so it can be more cost effective than you think!)
4 – Finding it hard to see beyond the way you’ve “always done things”. If I had a pound for every project team that used PMaaS resources for the first time in an emergency and then became ambassadors for the model – I’d be rich! The reason for the procrastination (before matters became urgent) is always the same – a fear that buying in resources “isn’t how we do things and what if it goes wrong?” Remember, when things are on the slide, parachuting in a huge skills matrix and multi-industry, multi-sector experience is never going to make things worse!!
5 – Fear of whistle blowing an issue you think you’ve spotted because you don’t want to be “that person” who throws a spanner in the works! When the project is going at ‘full pelt’ and you think you’ve spotted a potential problem or even an issue with the whole mission, putting your head above the parapet takes some guts. It’s better to be THAT person than the one who spots something horrendous, sits on it and then has to remain quiet as everyone asks, “How did no one spot this?”. In one recent case, a PM identified that their project (green lighted before COVID) no longer fitted the post COVID business need but kept quiet – the value returned by the project was minimal compared to initiatives launched by competitors who had read the room better. My PM friend Malc says, “I’ll risk looking a bit of a berk to avoid being a huge one any day of the week”.
In all these IT Project scenarios, you have to remind “your present self” that it can make life for “your future self” either easy or hard. Whether it’s heading to the fridge, sticking your head in the sand about a capability gap or keeping your mouth shut about project concerns – what YOU do now has consequences for YOU in the future.
BATTLE IN YOUR BRAIN!
The good news, I guess, is that procrastination is a natural phenomenon. Neuroscientists say that it is a battle between the ancient part of your brain (the limbic system or paleomammalian cortex) and the relatively younger formed prefrontal cortex. The limbic system controls the basic behaviours like the “fight or flight” response, and supports emotions, pleasure-seeking, long term memory, and instant gratification.
The younger prefrontal cortex, which evolved more recently (scientists reckon within the last 15-19 million years), is responsible for more complex behaviours, like orchestration of thoughts, goal setting, forward planning, prioritisation and delivering IT Projects!!
And sometimes, the limbic trumps the prefrontal, and instead of writing a blog about procrastination killing projects, you, ahem, end up watching six videos on YouTube about parts of the brain!
Writing for National Geographic, Nicole Johnson says that experts define procrastination “as the voluntary delay of an intended act despite the fact that you can expect to be worse off in the long run by putting off the task.” I love this summary! So, you know the task doesn’t go away, but sometimes you let your emotions, usually a fear, get the better of you.
As Tim Pychyl, a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle says, “Procrastination … is not a time-management problem; it is an emotion-management problem.”
So, yay! As a professional, you’re not broken, and if you are procrastinating more, given how much external stimuli your emotions are being bombarded with, frankly – is it any wonder?!
NICOL’S SEVEN IT PROJECT PROCASTINATION PANACEAS
It’s all about forward momentum – so … GO!
1 – GO BIG FIRST
Focus first on the biggest, hard things on your to do list. I’m less likely to put off a big job for ten minutes while I scroll through LinkedIn, than a little task. Once you’ve hit the big job out of the park, your momentum makes it a doddle to attack those smaller tasks, leaving time at the end of the day for a little instant gratification.
2 – GO FULL COLOUR
My friend colour tags emails, workflows and to-do lists with different colours. She easily pinpoints what needs her immediate attention and focus and, before her instant gratification monkey even realises, she is stuck into tackling her red ‘urgent’ or chasing up her yellow ‘awaiting more info’ tasks.
3 – GO SOMEWHERE ELSE
Do you ever find sitting at your desk isn’t getting your juices flowing? Move! How many times has a momentary lack of motivation sent you to Twitter or TikTok?!? Stop!! I find even picking up my laptop and going somewhere different helps. A change of scenery can unclog a creative block and even walking to the boardroom desk, canteen or boss’ office (if he’s out – shhhh!) can free your mind to magically find a solution en route.
4 – GO MAKE A LIST
If your procrastination stems from listlessness – make a list. As a Project Manager your life is made up of lists, but that never stops me creating a list of 10 or so items for the next phase of my day. As #1, the biggest or most complicated task first. I often add a little gratification further down the list, like a nice brew with a cake.
5 – GO DISTRACTION FREE
Eliminating distractions helps me stay focused! Fewer opportunities to procrastinate come up if the sources of instant gratification are not readily available! Placing your smart phone across the room, turning off notifications (on both your phone and laptop), being in an office with a closed door, etc, etc … what distractions could you eliminate?
6 – GO … TILL THE FINISH LINE!
Being finish-focused is a superpower! Focus on one task at a time and complete it before moving on to the next. “This can wait, while I begin another task” (plate spinning) opens the door for the tempting “This can wait while I chat with my co-workers, check Facebook, bid on eBay, etc.” A shorter gap between start and finish of a task leaves little room for Tim Urban’s instant gratification monkey to slide in!
7 – GO TO STONESEED.CO.UK FOR PMaaS!!
If your procrastination issues emanate from a capability/talent gap like the ones we talked about earlier, Stoneseed can help. Not only will a fresh pair of eyes give you new perspectives, having access to project professionals, resources and tools at a flexible and predictable cost can release your project from a procrastination induced stasis. Stoneseed’s team are experienced across multiple technology solutions, sectors and industries, and we work on all types of projects and programmes such as Business Change, Transformation, Infrastructure, Digital and IT Project Delivery. All Stoneseed’s PMaaS services are available onsite or remote (we are experts in Remote Project Delivery).
Ironically, each of these deliver the instant gratification of forward momentum, clients tell us all the time of the instant gratification PMaaS can deliver to project delivery, so Tim Urban can tell his monkey to rest!
Of course, it dawns on me that you may be reading this to avoid doing something else! If that’s the case, I hope it HAS helped you understand why you procrastinate!
Having watched (now EIGHT!!) videos on how the brain and procrastination work, I’m still not an expert – I am, however, a specialist in helping project teams overcome procrastination and general blockages with IT Project resourcing solutions. It that chimes with you, get your instant gratification monkey to perform one last distraction – call 01623 723910.
Let’s talk and then get down to work together! After a brew.