TM4T NQT - A Teachers Guide to Procrastination

Teachers understand procrastination well enough: "putting off till tomorrow what could be done today", but they don't always appreciate that it comes in many forms and that - frequently - it is absolutely the right thing to do.

Teachers need to differentiate between False Procrastination, Logical Procrastination and Emotional Procrastination. Each requires a different response.

False Procrastination is a mis-diagnosis common to all busy professionals, not just teachers. They set themselves eleven tasks to do in a day, but only do ten of them. Then they beat themselves up over the one task which they didn't have time to do. This one deferral does not indicate a deeply-seated flaw in your personality, it's just nature's way of telling you that you're kind of busy. Next time just plan to do ten tasks.

Logical Procrastination and Emotional Procrastination are more difficult to tease apart, and we'll discuss them together, but first of all let's re-visit the 'logical' bit:

In order to be efficient, we need to respond to disruptions, not react to them. This means deciding, logically, when to do our work. Problem arise when we do not apply simple logic, but instead substitute emotion. These emotional responses generally falls into one of the categories below, and for most of us, the simple act of categorisation will enable us to identify and remove the barrier. For others... well, if there is a serious emotional blockage or phobia involved, more specialist professional help may be needed.

a) Activities that we simply dislike doing, even though we recognise that they are necessary or valuable, and they can be done quickly. In this case, dear reader, the answer is simple but unpleasant: you need to toughen up, overcome inertia, and simply do it. Move it up your priority-list. Take confidence and pride in having done it once, then do it again next time.

b) Fear of failure, or a subconscious fear of success. Often, small tasks are merely steps towards some greater goal. In this situation, we inevitably encounter risk. If we e-mail that job application, what might be the outcome? Rejection? Or a situation with which we cannot cope? The answer is to be logical, not emotional, in assessing your underlying reasons for delay, while acknowledging the emotions themselves.

c) Stubborn assertiveness, or a reluctance to respond immediately, fearing that it may be interpreted as weakness or inferiority. In this case, the answer is to mentally dissociate the task from any status-related issues and to deal with them separately. If you are asked to crunch some numbers for a picky school leader, then dragging your heels achieves nothing. Do the task promptly, and then debate the importance and urgency of the work later.

d) Reluctance to defer pleasure. Teachers recognise this tendency in their students - "I'm having too much fun to study tonight, I'll do it tomorrow" - but they often fail to recognise the identical trait in themselves. For a teacher, the "pleasure" is frequently well-hidden. It may be an intellectually interesting problem, or a productive theoretical debate with a colleague. We sometimes don't want to stop, especially if the next thing on our to-do list is a piece of mundane administration. You need to assess whether this is logical (maybe you need to finish what you've started) or emotional (maybe you just don't like admin).

e) Elements of confrontation. Many administration tasks involve inter-personal communication, and this inevitably introduces the risk of conflict - an e-mail which might cause offence, a set of statistics which will provoke criticism. Frequently, we subconsciously prioritise our work using our emotional intelligence, deferring those tasks which imply confrontation.

If this is the reason for your procrastination, your course of action is simple: stop doing this subconsciously and start doing it consciously. It's usually absolutely the right thing to do: always pause and consider before you cause offence. Then do it.

f) A child-like yearning for perfection. Frequently teachers resent doing things 'in a rush' because it compromises their sense of achievement. It's like getting 7/10 in a test where you could have got ten marks if you'd just spent a bit more time... This is sensible in some contexts, not in others - you need to separate the two. The all-embracing rules of opportunity cost dictate that some tasks only demand 7/10. The time you save can be used more effectively on other things.

[ I will include the last four for completeness, though they rarely apply to teachers, and I'm sure, dear reader, they do not apply to you...]

g) Sod it, can't be bothered. This requires no explanation, but if it applies to you, then it requires some reflection. Why do you feel like this? Are you really being asked (told?) to do something with no value? Can't you ask for an explanation? Can't you refuse? Can you justify the wasted effort? Is this really the best job for you?

h) Dithering. Well, it happens to all of us sometimes: do I or I don't I? Should I or shouldn't I? Oh, it's too difficult, I'll decide tomorrow. Well, again, this isn't such a bad idea. If it is a trivial decision, then tackle it in the old school way: chin up, shoulders back, and make that decision. If it is a big decision, though, choose the best time to make it. Not when you're tired, that's for sure. Think it through when you are clear-headed and decisive and make a decision that you can live with later.

i) Inability to commit. A fiendish blend of (d) fear of failure and (h) dithering. Some decisions are big decisions and require real commitment. Choose your time to make these decisions, and choose a time when you have time - not just five minutes - to think the consequences through. Then: take that first step with a commitment to follow through.

j) Nervous insecurity based on lack of information. A specific breed of dithering - a feeling that nothing should be done too soon, that some consultation is necessary, that it would be better to wait for more clarity. This is, of course, sometimes valid, but if you suspect that it is a subconscious delaying tactic - a symptom of insecurity - then it probably is. Again, this is only a reason to defer action if a really big decision or commitment is involved, with significant consequences. If not, you are entitled to take action today based on what you know today.

All of the reasons above may, in some situations, represent a valid reason for delaying action and procrastinating. The important thing is to be aware of instances where we use these valid reasons inappropriately. If we are aware of our own shortcomings - the tricks that we use to deceive ourselves - we are much more likely to avoid these pitfalls in future.

Unless there are grave consequences involved, it is usually better to do something rather than nothing - inertia is to be avoided at all costs. If now is not the time to do something or decide something, then decide now when is a good time, and keep to that deadline.