Work trumps worry: how to free yourself from procrastination

Writing a tender response is a bit like sitting an exam. You won’t always know what’s going to be on it, but you can study and prepare if you know it’s coming. 

Surprisingly often, however, with a big tender on the horizon, many people want to ‘wait and see’ what’s in the Request for Proposal (RFP) before they do anything.

This seems crazy to me, because RFPs are designed to level the playing field – not to give you an advantage. Your competitors are going to get it too.

Waiting times may seem long, but when it comes, the submission timeframe will feel very short. 

So why don’t we always prepare ourselves properly for big opportunities, even though we know it will give us a better chance of being successful?

It’s easy to explain procrastination away as being ‘busy’, or needing to focus on other priorities, or reluctance to waste time doing work we might not later use. 

But I reckon it goes deeper than that. Taking action can trigger deep-seated anxieties for some people, making procrastination feel like a good thing – even though it’s not.

The psychology of procrastination

Procrastination is an interesting field of study into human behaviour.

Dr Joe Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and the author of Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done, says that everyone procrastinates from time to time – but not everyone qualifies as a ‘procrastinator’.

Through his research, Ferrari found that some 20% of Americans are chronic procrastinators, who delay things whether it’s at home, work, school or in relationships. He identifies three types of chronic procrastinators:

  1. Arousal types, or thrill-seekers, who wait to the last minute for the euphoric rush of adrenaline;

  2. Avoiders, who may fear failure or success, but are largely concerned with what others think of them and would rather give the impression that they lack effort than ability; and

  3. Decisional procrastinators, who can’t make a decision, and feel like this will absolve them of responsibility for the outcome of events. 

Interestingly, even those who aren’t chronic procrastinators are much more likely to handicap ourselves through procrastination when the stakes are high.  

In a study of college students undertaken by Ferrari and Tice, it was found that students were more likely to hold off on studying for a test when they were told it was a meaningful evaluation of their abilities. However, when told they were only taking the test for fun, they would study for it much more diligently. 

Procrastination, then, is a psychological strategy we might employ in an attempt to ‘control’ situations that are otherwise beyond our control – like waiting for a tender to arrive. 

So how can you avoid the trap of procrastination when the stakes are high, and start getting on with things instead? 

1.    Acknowledge that you’re procrastinating – and why

Many studies on procrastination have examined this behaviour in an academic setting. One 2007 study found that a whopping 80-95% of college students procrastinated regularly when it came to completing assignments and coursework. A 1997 survey also found that procrastination was one of the top reasons why candidates failed to complete their Ph.D. 

According to psychologists Ferrari, Johnson, and McCown, there are some major cognitive distortions that lead to academic procrastination. See if any of these resonate with you: 

  • Overestimating how much time you have left to perform tasks

  • Overestimating how motivated you will be in the future

  • Underestimating how long certain activities will take to complete, and

  • Mistakenly assuming that you need to be in the right frame of mind to work on a project 

2.    Stop making excuses to justify your inaction

Researchers have found that procrastinators tend to lie to themselves by saying they ‘work best’ or are ‘more creative’ under pressure. Procrastinators also make false assumptions, like they ‘will feel more like doing it tomorrow’ or that they’ll ‘do it when this other assignment is out of the way’.

Remind yourself that by putting off until tomorrow what you could have done today, you’re depleting your stores of time and energy – both of which will be in far shorter supply when the clock really starts ticking down to a hard deadline.

3.    Break the cycle and get some help

For some, it might be enough to own up to procrastination in order to stop it. For others, stronger intervention might be required –particularly if you work in a team.

To break the cycle of procrastination, start right now:

  • Schedule workshops to plan your bid strategy.

  • Make sure they’re not just a talkfest – assign actions, and hold people accountable to them.

  • Hire an external coach or facilitator if you don’t want to take it all on alone.

Although it may feel OK in the moment, procrastination is not going to help you win an important bid. 

Taking early, decisive action is the only way to build your confidence and gain some level of control over a situation that is, by its very nature, uncertain.