Consider the cliche job interview question — What’s your biggest weakness?* What’s the worst answer you can give?
“I’m a procrastinator.”
Probably no quicker way to ensure you’re “not the right fit” for that job. No matter what the job is.
Procrastination has become one of the ugliest words in modern work. It’s practitioners are stigmatized more than employees who make bad choices and blow up the company. They at least were doing something, the thinking goes.
But what if we’re thinking about it all wrong? What if the impulse to procrastinate is one of the more valuable tools we have?
Turns out it is. And learning to harness procrastination for good can teach you things about life and work that might otherwise take years. Procrastination, no matter how vilified, knows exactly when to rear its villainous head.
Or as Nassim Taleb put it in his book “Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder.”
“Psychologists and economists who study ‘irrationality’ do not realize that humans may have an instinct to procrastinate only when no life is in danger. I do not procrastinate when I see a lion in my bedroom or fire in my neighbor’s library. I do not procrastinate after a severe injury. I do so with unnatural duties and procedures.”
Put this way, it’s easy to see how your brain uses procrastination to show you what’s really important.
Think about the last thing you procrastinated on. Was is a matter of life and death? Probably not. Likewise, think about the last task you were laser focused on, I bet it felt like a pretty significant undertaking. Think about the last time you applied for a job or promotion that you deeply wanted. Did you fool around or get right to it?
Procrastination can be thought of as a battle between two forces in your brain, both fighting to send you signals on how to behave. Let’s take a look at these two systems and what each does.
The limbic system
The limbic system is a network in your brain that includes hypothalamus, the amygdala, and the hippocampus. It controls many emotions and actions essential to life, like eating. It is where emotion is regulated. It’s often characterized as the “feeling and reacting brain.” You feel thirsty, you have a drink. It’s a quick response to an immediate need. That’s limbic 101.
The prefrontal cortex
If the limbic system is the “feeling and reacting brain,” then the prefrontal cortex is the “thinking brain” This is where the complexities and nuance goes down. Language, problem solving, long-term planning. The PFC is what makes humans special. It is our most evolved brain region but also the one most susceptible to stressors. A tiring day at work will not make you forget to feel hungry, but it can temporarily wash away your ability to grasp complex problems in your prefrontal cortex. Ever wonder why you struggle to phrase something eloquently when you’re hungry and tired?
The limbic system doesn’t like when you engage in complex tasks that have no short-term reward. It constantly fights for short-term dominance. While your prefrontal cortex bears the burden of doing what’s best for long-term gain.
You might think the most successful people are all prefrontal cortex. That’s not the case.
Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham has written that some of the most successful people he’s encountered are terrible procrastinators. And he’s noticed three types of procrastinators, based on the activities they pursue instead of what they “should be doing.” Procrastinators are pursuing:
B: Something less important
C: Something more important
“That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators,” he writes. “They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.”
Or put another way:
“Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work,” Graham writes.
A better definition of procrastination
The two systems butt heads (no pun intended) and the result is procrastination. Your limbic system pulls you away from something complex, with long-term benefits, toward something more emotional with short-term benefits.
Looking at it this way we can craft a better definition of procrastination. Most dictionaries define procrastination as the act of putting off or delaying something that should be done.
This definition ignores a second, crucial step to procrastination: the act of choosing instead to do something emotionally rewarding for short-term gain. We often fail to see this because what we chose to do when we procrastinate is often so trivial that it seems like nothing at all.
What’s usually said: “I procrastinated on the big project, I did nothing all afternoon.”
What’s more accurate to say: “I avoided the big project because, while rewarding in the long term, it’s complex and strains my prefrontal cortex. Therefore I chose to watch cute cats on YouTube because it’s emotionally rewarding in the short-term.”
Consider this then a better, more-full definition of procrastination:
Putting off or delaying something complex, with long-term benefits, in favor of something emotional with short term benefits.
1. What are the long-term benefits of what I am putting off?
2. Can I do without those benefits?
3. Can I achieve the same benefits through some other task?
4. Can I replace those benefits with equally valued benefits that are achieved some other way?
5. Can I delegate or outsource the activity and achieve the same benefits?
Good procrastination and how to use it
Now that we understand where procrastination comes from, and have a better way of defining it. We can start to use it to our advantage.
Taleb uses procrastination to decide if he’s really passionate about his work. If he found himself procrastinating on writing a particular chapter, he cut it from his book.
“Why should I try to fool people by writing about a subject for which I feel no natural drive?,” he writes.
Some people have the will power to interrupt procrastination and put themselves back on track. This is seen as success. Unfortunately, all they’ve done is wrestle their impulses into submission. They’ve done nothing to analyze the procrastination and figure out where it came from.
Procrastination is a symptom, you need to find the source.
Here’s your new challenge: Don’t just kill procrastination. Perform an autopsy and find out where it came from. Here is a series of questions to ask yourself the next time you find yourself procrastinating.
1. What are the long-term benefits of the task I’m putting off?
2. Can I do without those benefits?
3. Can I achieve the same benefits through some other task?
4. Can I replace those benefits with equally-valued benefits that are achieved some other way?
5. Can I delegate or outsource the activity and receive the same benefits?
If you answer yes to any of 2-5, consider eliminating the task from your life and getting the benefits some other way. Otherwise, the exercise may give you the boost you need to buckle down and get back on task. Now that you’ve reflected on the long-term benefits, you might just be more motivated to get back to work.
You might have learned something valuable about yourself.
Now back to the cats.
Read the original article on iDoneThis Blog
Blake Thorne, iDoneThis Blog
2. They are dedicated to continuous improvement. They do not settle for "good enough" for their own performance or the performance of their teams.
They hold themselves accountable to learning, growing and improving, and they appreciate this behavior in their team members.
3. They work long hours but have come to terms with what “work-balance” means to them. Harvard Business School Professor Boris Groysberg and his team have been studying executive work/life balance for years, and his findings resonate with my own observations. According to their latest research, “Work/life balance is at best an elusive ideal, and at worst, a complete myth, today’s senior executives will tell you. But by making deliberate choices about which opportunities they’ll pursue, and which they’ll decline, rather than simply reacting to emergencies, leaders can and do engage meaningfully with work, family, and community. They’ve discovered through hard experience that prospering in the senior ranks is a matter of carefully combining work and home so as not to lose themselves, their loved ones, or their foothold on success."
4. They know exactly where they want to go. Top executives have a clear “vision” for themselves and their organizations They may not understand exactly how they will get there, but they are committed to finding the way through action and experimentation.
5. They love making decisions and can do so with limited information. A senior executive’s typical day is often filled with an endless series of meetings in which they are asked to make decisions. The successful ones would rather make a decision with limited information and then change it if they are wrong, rather than let it drag on for months.
6. They expect solutions and hate whining. They will maintain open channels of communication and love hearing from all levels of employees. They have limited patience for complaints without solutions.
7. They have “presence.” They look the part and can command a room.
8. They are risk takers and don’t mind making mistakes. Successful executives have no problem talking about their mistakes and the lessons learned from those mistakes. They take pride in the “scars” they have earned and view them as a part of growth.
9. They manage by the numbers but don’t lead by the numbers. In other words, they have incredible business acumen and can drill down into the details of the monthly operating reports and financial statements. They realize that business success is about leading people, not managing the numbers.
10. They regret not taking action on poor performers sooner. I hear this over and over and over. It’s almost a required experience and lesson for every successful executive. They all have stories about how they took over a business and their biggest was mistake moving too quickly to “get the right people on the bus.”
11. They learn how to size up a team quickly. While this may seem to contradict number ten, in all cases they said they knew early on who should stay and who should go, but they didn’t trust their instincts and tried to turn the person around.
12. They are rapid learners. They ask a lot of great questions, are extremely intelligent, and can sort out the important from the minutia. And they don’t like having smoke blown up their chimneys.
13. They multitask and tend to exhibit short attention spans. Unfortunately, this behavior is often perceived by others as not paying attention or caring. They often have to learn the behaviors of how to listen and show people that they are listening.
14. They get bored with the status quo. They thrive on new situations, turnarounds, and start-ups. When a business gets mature, they get antsy and start looking for the new challenge. In fact, in many cases, someone will come looking for them – they rarely have to look for new jobs.
15. They have mentors and know how to leverage them. That’s why so many of them are willing to mentor others.
16. They learn from experiences: good and bad. They can look back at every challenging assignment and former boss (good ones), and draw a lesson learned.
17. They are strategic. They can connect the dots and see forest from the trees. They spend time with customers, and they understand they work hard to translate insights into strategies and actions.
18. They have high expectations of others and readily show their frustration. Successful executives tend to be perceived as highly demanding, transferring their own personal high expectations to others. This can be challenging for their team members to deal with over time.
19. They manage up and play politics well in order to protect their autonomy. They know how to adapt to the styles and expectations of their bosses. It’s not that they are being compliant – they are doing it to keep their bosses off their backs so that they have the autonomy to run their businesses.
20. They learn how to play well with their peers and build coalitions. “Politics” is not a dirty word; it’s a requirement in order to gain the support and cooperation of your peers. The successful ones do it in a way that builds coalitions, instead of back-stabbing.
Author: Dan McCarthy, an expert in leadership and management development at thebalance.com
1. Accepting Change
"The most important skill for a business owner to have would be the acceptance of change. Every day there is a new technology out there that will change the way the current workload is done and you need to be able to embrace this change and use it to your advantage to increase productivity."
Nick Shirk, COO at SomethingGreek.com
2. Desire to Lead
"Business owners or CEOs require a number of qualities, but the most important of them all is their desire to lead. Since you are at the top, you must wear a leader's cloak. And you cannot be a leader unless you wish to be one. When you have that fire inside of you, you'll be more determinant than ever to move ahead. And that's exactly what you need."
Rocky Ghoneim, CEO at American Wealth Advisory
3. Understanding the Business
"The most important quality of a business owner executive is to understand what the business truly is. Understand the nature of the product or service, understand the customers and also the employees. Only when you sync all these, do you get a successful executive leader."
Trevor Gerszt, CEO at GoldCo Precious Metals
4. Sound Judgement and Strategic Initiatives
"What seems to attract job interviews for my CXO clients is a combination of metric driven accomplishments combined with trust building components that communicate a leader and mentor personality. Creating consensus with their executive team and across companies is key and becomes even more critical when leading corporate transformations, reorganizations or turnarounds. CEO's and COO's need to demonstrate sound judgement developing strategic initiatives, picking the right executive team leaders to initiate them, good management of P&L and ability to advise the board and meet the board's expectations."
Mary Elizabeth Bradford, Executive Resume Writer for C-level Executives
5. Ability to Sell
"The ability to sell is one of the most important skills a business owner can have. Being able to convince and persuade people to take action and get them to buy in to your company or product is the foundation of any successful business. Without sales, there is no company."
Randy Soderman, Founder of Soderman Marketing a Phoenix SEO company
6. Articulating the Vision
"The ability to have a vision. A vision of where the company is headed, a vision of how to get there and a vision of the people or resources you will need in order to get you where you want to go. It is also important not to lose sight of your vision during the "hustle." If you start to feel burnout, make sure you do something that will restore your energy and passion. For me, that is emerging myself in the community and inspiring others through motivational speaking."
Kristy Dickerson, CEO of STARTplanner
7. Empowering Talented Employees
"A great business leader encourages creativity and independent solutions. Let the ideas flow, empower talented employees, and success will follow. It also helps to communicate well."
Leslie Glass, President and CEO of Reach Out Recovery
The great thing about gathering the opinions of those that are in the trenches leading great organizations is that you can see certain commonalities as well as variance in opinion. Great leaders often agree on what it takes to successfully drive a team to achieve results, but their opinions on the most important aspects vary. What do you think the most important aspect is for being a great senior executive or business owner?
Author: Brent Gleeson, Keynote speaker and leadership coach