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Thursday, 30 August 2012

How to conquer procrastination (before it conquers you!)

A couple of days ago, the BBC published an article in their online News Magazine to accompany a Radio 4 broadcast about one of my pet topics: "Procrastination".

Ask anyone you know if they are "guilty of procrastination" and they're likely to own up to putting things off from time to time... So it wasn't a particular surprise to learn that Professor Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, has found in his extensive research that 95% of us procrastinate at some point!

Procrastination is an umbrella term to describe all the behaviours which avoid or delay doing things that we don't want to do, or don't like doing. There's a myriad of behaviours that we have at our disposal, from minimising the importance of tasks, to ignoring them completely, to justifying our approach as somehow more beneficial than just doing something.

We are all very different in what we like doing, how we like to do things and why we want to do things... So for me, the issue of procrastination is a complex one that will never be solved with a one-size-fits-all solution. Some people really don't see any problem for themselves in leaving tasks until they become critical, or life-threatening. (Their colleagues, friends and family may feel differently, but that's another matter.) In fact, they may well 'defend' their approach to work/life by saying that they're a perfectionist, or that they work better under pressure. Others will say that they know they procrastinate, but they have no idea how to stop doing it - they have a yearning that 'someday' (when they're less busy, stressed, distracted...) they'll sort themselves out and learn to take control. But you know where 'someday' gets us: not very far at all!

Everyone sits somewhere along the continuum of "happy to procrastinate" through to "desperate to stop procrastinating". Where we sit on that continuum will depend on the day of the week/month, the season of the year, the tasks in question and the people by whom we are surrounded. I imagine it as a set of scales, with the desire to act on one side and the perceived dread or dislike of doing whatever it is, on the other side. Whichever is stronger will always win. So unless you really, really want to stop procrastinating more than you want to avoid doing whatever the task is, then you'll never break the vicious cycle.

So what's the solution? I believe the first step involves becoming more conscious of the choices we make on a day-to-day, minute-by-minute basis. Rather than just 'going with the flow', seeing where our mood and un-checked inclination takes us, we can choose to consciously consider what we do with our time and why we're doing it. If we sit at our desk in the morning, open up our emails and just click through until something interesting grabs our attention, the likelihood is that we won't be putting our time to particularly good use. If there's a task that never seems to get ticked on our to-do-list, or something that we always seem to do in a panic at the last possible minute, then the first step is to understand why.

This first step will need a fair amount of courage and honesty. Is it that it seems too much like hard work? or perhaps it's because we're afraid of failure (so we don't want to even try in case we get it wrong). It could just be that we don't know where to start, or that it seems like an overwhelming mountain to climb. On the other hand, it could be that we're just not into doing things that we don't enjoy - particularly if there's no obvious immediate personal gain. The list is endless.

Once you have your most likely answer (or combination of answers) then, and only then can you begin to create a plan of action to address the issues. If you find this step difficult, and you're genuinely determined to get to the bottom of it, you may need to enlist the help of a trustworthy and supportive friend or colleague to explore the issues with you. It's not helpful to see it as a personality assassination, or a blame game - simply a detached analysis of what's getting in the way of you tackling particular tasks before you get to the "oh no, now I'm in real trouble" stage.

Here are a few suggestions for counteracting some of the most common reasons for procrastinating:

Unconvinced that procrastination is a problem?
  • Identify the price of procrastination in terms of your reputation and relationships. Ask your immediate colleagues, friends and family how your procrastinating affects them. Then ask yourself, is it really worth it?
  • Admit that procrastination is a lack of self-discipline and not a skill or technique - but it is within your power to overcome it.
  • Recognise the impact your procrastination has on others and show more consideration to people by planning properly and involving them at the appropriate time.
  • Remind yourself that tasks rarely get easier, or go away because they have been postponed.
  • Convince yourself of the benefits to you, your colleagues, friends, family or anyone else that matters to you - if you do it sooner rather than later.

Overwhelmed by how much there is to do, or don't know where to start?

  • Make a plan that breaks down the task into achievable chunks with estimated time allowances and time scales.  Small deadlines are so much easier to deal with than one large overwhelming task.
  • Aim to get the task completed a while before any deadline - so that you allow for any unexpected interruptions and obtain a second opinion if required.
  • Before you get going, identify any areas of the task that you may need help with, so that you can enlist the appropriate help in good time.  
  • If you can, involve others early on in the task and approach it as a team effort. This could help you all avoid procrastinating, as you won’t want to let each other down.
  • If the task involves a particular frame of mind, such as being creative, or feeling positive, or having clarity of thought - plan to do it when you know you are most likely to be feeling that way. (Leaving a complex or creative task until after lunch is not usually very productive!)
  • Don’t allow the task to get out of control because you are being too fussy about certain elements – stay focused on the overall objective of the task, and what you are trying to achieve from it. ("Good enough is good enough")

The task is dull and boring, or something you don't like doing?
  • Plan to do it when you are at your least energetic - you'll be pleased to plod your way through something un-challenging.
  • Visualise yourself getting on with the task and realise how good you will feel if you complete it on time. Compare that with how bad you will feel if you don’t.
  • Promise yourself a reward for completing it – and make sure you follow-through!

You're easily distracted, or you just keep forgetting to do things?

  • Find and implement a reminder system that suits you - it could be Outlook task manager, an alarm on your phone, a simple diary/to do list on the wall, or a reminder by text or email from a friend. Use it to prompt yourself when it's time to start on a particular task that you've scheduled.
  • When the time comes, try cutting yourself off from distractions (turn your phone off, go to a private room, or tell others that you don't want to be disturbed for an hour or so. Then just get on with it until your allotted time is up, or until you have completed the first stage.
  • You may get distracted because you have a short attention span, or because you're attempting to do too much at once. If this is the case, make yourself stop, focus on something else and return to it at an allotted time.
  • Tell others what you're getting on with, and let them know when you've finished, so they can congratulate you. (In a totally non-patronising way, of course!)
  • Promise yourself a reward for staying focused and not being distracted – and make sure you follow-through!

You don't see the task as a major priority?

  • Consider the consequences of continuing to leave the task uncompleted. If it genuinely won't make a jot of difference to you, or to others - cross it off your to do list and don't give it another thought.
  • If you have other more important priorities right now, but you can envisage a future problem if you keep putting it off, schedule a specific date and time when you'll make a start.
  • If you have lost sight of how important the task is in the grand scheme of things (you're getting too bogged down with small, less significant things) take time to write down your personal goals and priorities. Work out how this task fits in, and remind yourself of the value of completing it sooner rather than later.
I hope you'll find these few ideas useful. The key is not to try them all, but to understand what's behind your particular procrastination, and to tackle it with a strategy that is most likely to work.

To me, the most worrying part of the research findings shared by the BBC is that serious procrastinators are apparently less wealthy, less healthy and less happy than those who don't delay. So if you do happen to catch yourself justifying your procrastination to yourself or to others, it may be a good idea to stop and think about what's really going on, just in case you're inadvertently covering up a ticking time bomb...

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

What is "Slow Learning"?

This week, I've been thinking about "Accelerated Learning". For anyone who hasn't come across AL, it's a very broad term which encompasses a wide range of diverse techniques, methodologies and approaches to teaching and to learning. AL basically uses the latest brain research to help you learn faster and remember more.

My initial reaction when I first heard about AL many years ago was "great!" - After all, who wouldn't want to learn faster, and to remember more?

If you read my blog post in March this year, entitled: "Would you like fries with that?" you'll be forgiven for thinking that I'm a food obsessed trainer! Actually, I am partial to good wholesome cooking, but I also happen to see a lot of analogies between food and learning... particularly between Fast Food and Accelerated Learning, and "Slow Food" and "Slow Learning".

You may have heard of "Slow Food" (The international movement founded by Carlo Petrini in 1986.) Slow Food UK explains:

"In the fast modern junk food environment, Slow Food is the voice of calm reason and quality. We work to promote the greater enjoyment of food through a better understanding of its taste, quality and production."

So what is "Slow Learning"? It's actually a term I've started using to describe the type of learning that is not intended or designed to be a quick fix, nor a speedy short cut to developing skills. It's a concept that embraces the value and benefits of taking time to develop and hone skills, to learn through experience, and to build an expertise which only time, reflection and guided learning can bring...

I should perhaps point out here, (as I did in my previous "...fries with that?" blog post) that I don't feel there's anything wrong with Accelerated Learning - in fact there are a lot of very useful AL techniques that I regularly use in my training - to help make the experience memorable and the learning easier to digest. My interest in the concept of "Slow Learning" is not about discrediting an approach which so clearly has it's place, but it is about suggesting that there's another way, which perhaps we have lost sight of.

There can't be a person in the UK who hasn't been watching (or at least keeping up with) the Olympics.... If you were to ask any of the medal winners what's the secret of their success, they're unlikely to say that they simply attended an intensive 1 or 2 day training session and rocked up at the Olympic Park! The Olympians, whether medal winners or competitors are a fantastic example of dedication, hard work, positive mental attitude and tenacity: all qualities which I believe are central to the concept of "Slow Learning".

I do worry that if we continue to promote the idea of speeding up learning by shortening the process, we will end up with the same kind of legacy that we are experiencing from the "Fast Food" movement. On the surface, not wasting your day with picking, plucking, preparing and cooking your food sounds brilliant. And even better, being able to grab what you need whilst on the go, and extremely cheaply seems too good an opportunity to miss! However, we've now discovered that for all the advantages, there are just as many disadvantages. Most significantly, the addictive nature of food that lacks nutritional value, and the generations of people who have become de-skilled, and disinterested in real food and nutrition.

In a similar way, it seems to me that we have developed a "how hard can it be?" culture, with people becoming so called "experts" in a couple of days, because they are intelligent enough to be able to absorb the key concepts from a book or from a day's training... More often these days, I meet groups of corporate trainees who come along to training with an expectation of simply being given quick answers. They have little appetite for understanding the underpinning concepts, or mastering the skills which will help them to solve a myriad of similar problems. They have short attention spans, and seem unwilling to accept that tried and tested techniques may take time to learn and to perfect.

So are we playing into the perceived need for speeding everything up, learning more for less, and in less time? Or are we simply adapting to the culture of our time?

Personally, I still see the intrinsic value of taking time to complete the "prepare, act, review and forward-plan" cycle. Which is why I promote the idea of "Slow Learning" as a healthy, beneficial alternative to quick fix training.

I'd love to hear your views!

Thursday, 2 August 2012

Can trust and rapport be faked?

Do you remember Kaa the snake in Disney's Jungle Book? Although he was just an animated character, he had a profound effect on me as a child. It was probably the first time that it had occurred to me that seemingly 'nice' people could actually be disingenuous. Even today, I still hear that memorable song: "Trussssssssst in meeeeee" whenever my manipulation radar goes off!

The question of whether trust and rapport can be faked may seem obvious: I'm sure you can easily bring to mind several unscrupulous people that you've come across who have managed to use their charm to get what they want. Whether their own interests are money, power, status or simply self-preservation, there are many individuals (and corporations) who are able to influence others by creating a feeling of trust and building a form of rapport.

I'm particularly interested in the every-day interactions between colleagues, suppliers, business partners and managers - the ones where every day, ordinary people create every day, ordinary relationships with each other. As a trainer and coach, one of the questions I often get asked is how to develop trust and rapport. In fact my post on Building Trust and Rapport is by far the most viewed article since I started blogging back in 2007. Whilst it is great news to see that so many people are interested in my musings, it has got me thinking about WHY so many people are looking for tips on this subject.

Why is there an increased need to find quick answers, or magic formulas for creating trust and rapport? We are being regularly told by many different 'experts' that the traditional ways of selling, influencing and doing business are becoming unfashionable and ineffective. Apparently the key to success now lies in our ability to develop relationships with the people we do business with. There's plenty of evidence on LinkedIn: it's positively buzzing with people connecting, exchanging views, messages and information in an attempt to get to know each other. Seeing your number of online connections growing daily, and having interesting dialogues with people you'd be unlikely to find or meet off-line, may give you a buzz, but it's obviously not all just for fun - it's because there's a growing understanding that these sorts of interactions can create very valuable foundations for a relationship with possibilities. 

From a psychological point of view, those who are trusted, and those who trust others, tend to experience less stress and feel generally higher levels of wellbeing. They are also in a far better position to be able to create collaborative, win-win relationships and gain the support of others. We know that people buy from those they trust. They are more influenced by those they trust, and they share information with people who they consider trustworthy...

So anyone who is unscrupulous, desperate or just very outcome focussed who wants to sell, influence or to collect valuable information may well be tempted to seek the "Trussssssssst in meeeeee" approach. But does it work? The answer has to be "sometimes" - as there are those who are naturally quite trusting (some might say naive). However, when I'm asked about tricks for developing trust and rapport in my training or coaching sessions, I always share a small but important caveat with my list of tips... And that is, that if you are not totally genuine, then trying to build a trusting relationship for your own motives is a very high risk strategy. Human beings are highly sensitive to the almost imperceptible clues that give a disingenuous person away. If you're spotted, then the relationship is pretty much ruined. And if you're caught out a little way down the line, because they trusted you initially - you risk losing your reputation and credibility not only with that person, but with many others in their network.

My advice is therefore not to be tempted to learn a whole battery of tricks and techniques, but to examine your own motives and to give some real consideration for the needs and interests of the other party. Only when your heart is genuinely aligned with the needs and interests of the other person instead of just your own, will you be able to communicate authentically, and in a way which will create genuine and valuable trust and rapport.