Eight to Late

Sensemaking and Analytics for Organizations

Why I didn’t do some of the things I had to do…

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Why do people postpone important tasks?  Research by Sean McCrea and his colleagues may provide a partial answer. Theyfound that people tend to procrastinate when asked to perform tasks that are defined in  abstract terms. What this means is best explained through one of their experiments: half of a group of students were asked to describe how they would carry out a mundane task such as opening a bank account, and the other half  were  asked to describe reasons why one might do that task  – i.e. why one might want to open a bank account.  The first task is straightforward, and needs little thought  prior to execution. The second one is more abstract; some deliberation is required before doing it.  Even though all participants were offered a small (but interesting enough) sum of money if they completed the task within three weeks, it was found that most of those who were given the concrete task completed it on time  whereas more than half those assigned the abstract task failed to complete it.  The researchers use the concept of psychological distance to describe this behaviour. Psychological distance in this context is a measure of the closeness (or remoteness) a person feels to a task, abstract tasks being more “distant” in this sense than concrete ones.

Reading about this reminded me of an incident that occurred many years ago, just after I’d made a career switch from academic research to business consulting. One of the partners in the firm I was working for had asked me to write a project proposal for a new client. He assumed I knew what was needed, and offered no guidance. I had a half-hearted try at it, but couldn’t make much headway.  Like the stereotypical student, I then put it off for several days. The day before the deadline, fearing the consequences of inaction,  I got down to it.  I spoke to a few colleagues to make the task clearer, spent some thinking it through then, finally, wrote (and rewrote) the proposal well into the night.

Seen in the light of Dr. McCrea’s research, my procrastination was simply a normal human reaction to an abstract task. Once I was able to define the task better – with the help of my colleagues and some thought – my reasons for procrastination vanished, and with it my mental block.

I see this operate in my current job too. I work with a small group of developers who tackle a wide range of projects ranging from enterprisey stuff (such as the implementation of CRM systems), to the development of  niche applications used by a handful of people. The small size of our group means that everyone has to do a bit of everything – design, coding, testing, maintenance, support and (unfortunately) … documentation. Now, in keeping with the stereotypical developer, most of the mob detest doing documentation.  “I’d rather do maintenance coding,” said one. When asked why, he replied that it took him a lot more effort to write than it did to do design or coding work.   Of course, this is not to say that cutting coding is easy, but that developers  (or the ones I work with, at any rate)  find it less remote psychologically – and hence easier –  than writing.  So, when required to do documentation, they typically put it off if as much as possible.

The relationship between task abstraction and procrastination indicates how  managers can help reduce the  tendency to procrastinate.  The basic idea is to reduce task abstraction, and hence reduce the psychological remoteness an assignee feels in relation to a task. For example, when asking a coder to write documentation, it might help to provide a template with headings and sub-headings, or make suggestions on what should and should not be included in the documentation. Anything that makes the task less abstract will help counter procrastination.

Tasks can be made more concrete in a number of ways. Some suggestions:

  • Outline  steps  required to perform the task.
  • Providing more detail about the task.
  • Narrow the task down to specifics.
  • Provide examples or templates of how the task might be done.

Of course, not all procrastination can be attributed to task abstraction. Folks put off tasks for all kinds of reasons – and sometimes even for no reason at all.  However, speaking from personal experience,  Dr. McCrea’s work does ring true:  I didn’t do some of the things I had to do simply because they weren’t clear enough to me – like that project plan I was supposed to have started on a week ago.  But advice is easier given than taken. With only a gentle pang of guilt, I put it off until tomorrow.

Written by K

February 7, 2009 at 3:41 pm

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