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The Science of Procrastination

Strategies for Stress

November 24, 2020

There are a lot of webinars and seminars I have seen pop up on what is being termed in various forms as the “new normal” or some variant thereof. As a thought on how I might productively add to these discussions, I would like to add an observation regarding how we all react to various forms of the stress associated with change.

Reactions to Stress + Change

There are essentially three different types of reactions associated with stress. The first is avoidance. This is generally the path of least resistance, at least at the start of the reaction. “Maybe this problem will go away by itself.” That is rarely the case.

The second reaction is ambivalence. It looks a lot like the reaction above with one key difference. There is no direct or indirect concern for the remedy: “I don’t really care how that turns out.” That abdicates any direct accountability or responsibility for the outcome, and something that may have been able to be addressed — if it was addressed at the time — may fail more quickly or in a more significant way due to this lack of care.

The third reaction is sort of a combination of the first two. Defensiveness is arguably the most destructive of the three mechanisms because it hops the fence into actively working against finding a solution: “That isn’t a real problem — let’s focus on something else.” That not only indicates that you are not willing to work on problem; it sends the message directly to your team that you are either in denial or that you are unable to see the reality of the current circumstances.

Embracing a new form of your model as an organization is a function of the level of flexibility you are able to adopt in changing conditions. In the environment of procrastination, options are removed as a function of time and it can seem easier when decisions are made externally or as it relates to the time that continues to creep forward. But this overlooks some key things.

I acknowledge that our current circumstances have amplified our stress level on just about everything. At the start of this, it seemed like holding our collective breath was the right answer, and, at that moment, it probably was. As time moved forward, we all got fatigue. Fatigue from stress, from being on virtual calls, from not knowing. And with each new change, it became easier to slip into one of the response frameworks listed above.

Healthy Coping Mechanisms for Change

But as we determine how to deal with our circumstances moving forward, it is important to realize that these are coping mechanisms and not necessarily a symptom of something malignant within an organization. Finding positive strategies to overcome the above can be simple, but very effective:

  • Adjust your focus to shorter-term wins or goals. This allows you to alleviate stress about what is going to happen a year from now, which is important because we are not able to as accurately forecast external circumstances at the current moment.
  • Communicate more. The behaviors listed above most often happen when communication is sporadic or too high-level. Communicating more (and in more detail) keeps you and you staff engaged.
  • Let go of things you are unable to control. This is likely the most difficult one. We want to be able to shape our own outcomes, but, for now, focus on things that are within your reach.

Yes, decisions are easier when there are less of them. But when decisions are made for us this can come at the expense of being able to assemble resources or deliberate with the benefit of time or the space to consider options without urgency or eminent impact. Using some of the techniques listed above, you can avoid some of the traps that procrastination can create for you.

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Joe Benesh

Joe Benesh is the President and CEO of The Ingenuity Company, located in Des Moines. The Ingenuity Company specializes in Strategic Planning, Diagramming, Organizational Design Thinking, and Leadership/Change Facilitation. He also teaches strategic planning at the University of Iowa in the MBA Program.