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Are you a high performance procrastinator?
We're busy doing nothing, working the whole day through
How’s your to-do list? Ticked off like a trojan?1 Here’s mine:
✅ Set client strategy
✅ Design big presentation
✅ Catch up on industry news
❌ Write newsletter
So yeah, my actual priority was to write this. But look! I accomplished Lots of Other Stuff. No slackers here, amirite?!2
Well… no. Thing is, we tend to think of procrastination as conspicuous avoidance. Making more tea. Endlessly refreshing e-mail. Tidying a spotless desk.3 But for the leaders I work with, that’s mostly not what procrastination looks like.4
Their avoidance is often inconspicuous, in the form of prioritising other core tasks. Because when everything feels urgent it’s hard to privilege what’s important. And besides, you’re still busy. You’re still working hard. And you’ll still deliver… Just with more friction and less energy. (Like this newsletter. 😬)
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Are you being productive or performative?
Inconspicuous avoidance is hard to admit. Because from the outside, busy is busy. Only you can really know whether you’re very busy with one thing because you’re avoiding another. A friend of mine calls this ‘high performance procrastination’.5 Which is bang on, isn’t it? To the all the world it looks like you’re working terribly hard. And indeed you are. Just on something else.
So it’s worth getting curious about whether you’re being productive or a high performance procrastinator at any given point. Sometimes just noticing can nip it in the bud:
Does this require your urgent attention?
Does this deserve your best energy?
Does that deserve the dregs?
Are you, just possibly, shooting yourself in the foot?
You could ask these and other questions. Except probably, you already know. You know whether you’re practising diligence or avoidance, even when they look alike. And you know what you’re avoiding. So then what?
Why are you procrastinating?
What’s behind your not-so-classic avoidance? Fear?6 Or boredom? Or ‘this is really difficult and requires best-brain and all I can summon is bleugh-brain’? (For which I tried to come up with a snappy label, but failed.7)
Or are you, most unhelpfully, procrastinating because it really matters? It might sound odd, but really wanting something can have a paralysing effect.8 Because: what if you actually got it? Then what? Who would you be then? 😮
This sort of procrastination often gets muddled up with fear. But it’s not quite the same. Yes, there’s a nervy anxiety to it. But in my experience, it tips towards feeling unready more than scared. And that makes holding off seem smart: surely more prep = more ready. And yep, that's true. Until, of course, you miss the boat and render all that prep futile.9 🤦♀️
But how to get back on the wagon?
It’s all very well knowing what’s behind your procrastination. But then what? Sometimes a firm eyeroll is enough. And sometimes an impertinent question can help.
Is it boring?
What could add a spot of levity?
Which incentives might make it more palatable?
Where might joining forces make it easier, funnier or, ahem, fun-er-er?
Will this eliminate procrastination? Nope. Can noticing the niggles help you answer them? Or crack on anyway because they’re unanswerable? Yep. Will they pop up again? Of course! But it’s easier to dismiss that but-but-but when you’ve previously batted it away.10
But wait! Can procrastination be a good thing?
Strap in: about turn ahead!11 Sometimes it is smart to procrastinate. Sometimes you need a break. Sometimes you need other stuff in place first. And sometimes what you’re supposed to be doing loses saliency, while what you’re not doing rockets in appeal.
On which: if both tasks are of equal importance and urgency, there’s no harm in switching. You might even save time by harnessing your intellectual energy more efficiently. But it’s not without risk. An unexpected event can throw everything out. So switch, but don’t luxuriate.
There’s another way in which high performance procrastination can be smart. Sometimes the thing you do instead is just… better. A friend of a friend has a corking example: their now multimillion dollar business was born out of avoiding their novel. See? Avoidance really can pay off!12 (It’s just annoyingly hard to plan. 🙄)
If you get it done, does procrastination actually matter?
Well, yes. Perhaps not to anyone else, but almost certainly to you. High performance procrastination is still work. It still uses energy and brain power. It still leaves you tired after a long day. But it’s work stripped of satisfaction, progress and potential fulfilled.
Most leaders I know need that internal validation. Because it’s not just external delivery that matters; it’s how that impacts your sense of self. And too much high performance procrastination can chip away at that.
So allow yourself a massive sigh. And then privilege what matters with your best energy, not the dregs.
And with that, I’m off to do nothing – busily. 👋
P.S. If you’re new here, thanks very much for subscribing. If you’re not, thanks awfully for sticking around! Especially as this one turned out to be quite late and quite long. But… if you’re keen on a short, regular burst you might like my 20 Impertinent Questions, each 30-second read.13 And that's it!
Of the determined rather than viral variety.
I have just discovered this abbreviation. And this website. A development that is either unhelpful or pertinent.
No one I’ve met is immune to conspicuous avoidance; they just don’t do it at work.
That fear might be of the actual thing – delivering a conference presentation because you have social anxiety, for example. Or fear of failing at the thing – like delivering a crap presentation. It might even be a fear of being found out – the shame of everyone realising you’re a, I don’t know, “presentations fraud”, say. (And no, I don’t know what one of those is either. Which is the point.)
Although ‘can’t be arsed’ comes close. Bit harsh? Perhaps. But honestly, haven’t you felt that sometimes?
And besides, who isn’t a contrarian at heart?
There’s so much more to say about this, about how fear intersects with hope, and the mental gymnastics of getting what you want. I might even write a post on it. Mañana.
But-but-but… is it really? Yes. Incidentally, this tends to be more fun with someone else. There’s something freeing and funny about saying it all out loud. Daylight might be a disinfectant, but so is laughter.
How can you know whether it’s worth the trade? You can’t. But you can get curious if you feel inexorably, relentlessly drawn to something. Or conversely, relentlessly downhearted. What is the pull factor, and the push? Is it temporary or persistent? How could you find out more: who could you talk to; what could you start to test out?
Yep, another glorious segue. Working in telly really did set me up for anything. 😂