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What’s The Real Reason For Procrastination?
Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the secret that every entrepreneur keeps: the fact that they procrastinate. They see it as an entirely negative experience, one they feel tremendously guilty about. They feel like a fraud, a failure. Because an entrepreneur’s entire life is results-driven, getting stuck is the worst possible situation they can find themselves in.
I was “lucky” enough early on in my entrepreneurial career to learn the real reason for procrastination. I got myself into a situation where I was procrastinating so badly on an important project that I scared myself into the most focused thinking I’d likely ever done because total transformation of the situation was the only possible solution.
After the dust settled, I could see that rather than being a negative thing, procrastination can actually be a transformational tool you can use to get you unstuck and moving toward a much bigger result in a much more powerful way. I learned this the hard way.
An unpleasant but valuable lesson.
In the 1970s and into the 1980s, I was coaching one-on-one and experimenting a little to see if the concepts I was developing for strategic thinking worked in the political world.
At the time, I had a year-long contract writing and illustrating a report for a top cabinet minister in the Canadian government. I had been procrastinating for quite some time on this project when I got a call from one of his assistants that the minister would like me to come in the next day for a meeting to show them the progress I’d made.
There was no progress to show. I had been feeling nervous about the project, feeling like there was something almost tangible holding me back. I was stuck, paralyzed.
In the 24 hours I had until the meeting, there was no way that I could produce anything that could be considered an impressive beginning to the project or garner any confidence in my ability to not only complete it, but create a document worthy of the office of this cabinet minister.
I was headed for a meeting where I would be revealed as a failure. I could lose the contract and my reputation, and my ability to get future work would be threatened. I slept poorly that night and dreaded the fast-approaching meeting.
From desperation to breakthrough thinking.
As I walked to the meeting, something occurred to me that might possibly save me from this worst-case scenario. I had started thinking about the life of this cabinet minister and how filled with complexity it was.
He was the head of four different government departments. Every day, he had to face question period in Parliament, never knowing whether he would be blindsided by an embarrassing question from the Opposition party. At the same time, as a Member of Parliament, he had local constituents writing or calling about issues they were concerned with. And there was election coming up. His life was filled with complexity.
In the space of about an hour, I had likely the most significant conceptual breakthrough of my life, one that actually led to the future success of Strategic Coach®.
The question that changed my life.
I arrived at the cabinet minister’s office and began the meeting by asking him whether, before we talked about the project, we could take five minutes to talk about something else. And I began to paint a detailed picture of all the complexity he had in his life, starting with the fact that his four-year term in office was coming to an end, and he would be facing an election.
I could see him nodding, and his three assistants were doing the same. At that point, I asked him a question:
“If this was four years from now and we were looking back over that time, if you could get only three things done that would give you a tremendous sense of success about your time in office, what would they be?”
Suddenly, all thought of the project I was there to report on was gone.
There was a flip chart in the room, so I suggested we write the three things down: the first was a piece of legislation he wanted to get through, the second was a major reform he wanted to see happen, and the third was a new capability he wanted created in one of his departments.
He ended by saying that he didn’t care if anything else got done; those three things were most important to him. And, he added, he didn’t even care if he got elected again if they got done.
I suggested that not everything that’s pulling at him every day was as important as those three things, so why not create a situation where every day, no matter what, he would experience progress in these three areas.
I continued, asking what the obstacles were to achieving the three things, and then the strategies to overcome those. And, right there, The Strategy Circle®, one of the foundational tools we use in Strategic Coach workshops, was created in an hour. Everyone in the room was excited about the possibilities that now seemed highly achievable.
Every time you procrastinate, it’s telling you something important. Listen for the “why.”
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A gamble, but nothing else to lose.
Our time was up, but not before the cabinet minister asked for another meeting to work out a game plan based on the thinking we’d done — and thanked me for giving him absolute clarity on what was important to him.
I brought up meeting about the project before I left, but all he wanted was to talk about the conversation we’d just started. I left walking on air. What a wonderful way to spend my time as a coach consultant! Instead of focusing my time on doing projects for people, why not just ask them what the most important things are in their future?
I’ll admit that I didn’t feel great about steering the meeting off course, but the payoff for the cabinet minister was exciting. And for me, it was the transformation of my entire coaching career.
Something bigger brewing.
After the meeting, I thought a lot about my reason for procrastinating. I came to believe that I was procrastinating because under the surface, there was an idea forming that could take my whole game as an entrepreneur to another level. Something bigger was brewing, and it was only because of the pressure of the 24-hour deadline and knowing that I had nothing to show that I was able to create something even more important and useful than the original project.
I took that as a huge lesson.
That feeling of being paralyzed, of being stuck, is terrible, but when you’re there, pay attention. I believe that something else, something more important is involved. I’d say you’re at the start-off point of something new that’s got a lot more electricity, a lot more future.
What is the new, bigger thing you’re waiting for?
Learn how to turn procrastination into your greatest new ability.