What Shall I Do Next? – Decisional Procrastination

Sing Your SongHappy New Year! You have probably been inundated by ideas about what to do for your new year’s resolution, by now, and have already given up on most of them. So I will not beat a dead horse, and today I will broach a different topic instead, that might be more useful to you for the remainder of 2015.

I would like to talk about a lesser known cause of procrastination: decisional procrastination. The concept emerged from Leon Mann’s Flinders Decision Making Questionnaire in 1982, and was proposed by Joseph Ferrari as a type of procrastinator in 1991. Not everyone agrees that there is such a person as a “decisional procrastinator.”

However, there may be times when you find yourself stumped because you don’t know what to do next. There are at least two ways that this happens:
1. You have a well-defined task at hand but you just don’t know how to start. For example: you want to write a blog article, like this one, but you don’t know what subject to write about.
2. The other case of decisional procrastination is when you don’t even know what you ought to do next.

The latter situation is one that I often find myself in. I look at my to-do list that contains upward of 100 different items, and I have no idea where to start. I could pick, say, the very first item on the list, but a concerned voice inside of me says “What if this is not the most important thing?” “What if I’m forgetting something that will come back and bite me?” or “What if I start doing something but I realize that this is not the thing that needs to be done now?” I will give you a step-by-step approach on how to get out of this quagmire below.

Resolving Indecision in 3 Steps

  1. Do a Brain Dump
    In David Allen’s landmark book, Getting Things Done, he urges you to collect all your thoughts, all the pieces of paper lying around your desk, all the Post-it® notes, all the pending e-mails that you have not been paying attention to. Put all this information into your to-do list. If you haven’t done this in a while, this could take a long time, but if you have been keeping your to-do list up to date, it could be very quick. Having all your tasks in one big list will ensure that when you decide what to do next you will know exactly everything that you have to do (or close to it).
  2. Survey Your To-Do List
    If, like me, your list contains more than 100 items, it may be overwhelming to even just look at it, but don’t put the cart before the horse, just look at the task names without indulging the thought that you’ll never live long enough to complete all this… It will become apparent which items require attention right now. For example, If you have a paper due on Wednesday and today is Monday, and you know that you will need to spend four hours on it, It would probably be a good idea to start working on it today (yes, I know, you could pull an all-nighter on Tuesday evening, but who wants to do that?…). You may also find out that you need to buy milk for tomorrow’s breakfast, and it’s already 5 o’clock. In other words you will see a combination of important and urgent tasks bubbling up out of your to do list (see what is meant by “important” and “urgent” in Stephen Covey’s four quadrants from The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People). Circle those items that need to be done soon or even immediately out of your to do list, and estimate how much time each one will take. Figure out how much time you could rationally allocate to each with whatever is left of your day—you may not be able to fit all the items you circled.
  3. Overcome Self-Doubt
    Now you still find yourself with another dilemma: What if you made the wrong decision? What if out of 10 important items on your to do list you only have time to do three? What if you are making the wrong decision? This is the point where you have to let your intuition—your “gut”—dictate where to go to next. Stick with your choice and don’t look back. You will have all kinds of negative voices telling you that you have made the wrong decision, you should be doing something else, and these voices will drive you to paralysis if you listen to them. Instead you need to take a leap of faith. Trust that even if this is not the perfect choice or the optimal decision, it is much better than not acting. Whatever needs to be done will still be there for you to do tomorrow, and you will get another chance at it.

If you are anything like me, your limbic brain will start ringing all kinds of alarm bells when you implement Step 3 above. To calm your fear that things will go awry, tell your inner watchman that this is only a trial. Give yourself two weeks to test out whether you get things done with less drama. If you find out that important tasks fell through the cracks, and terrible things happened to you because of if, you can go back to doing things the way you’ve always done them. But chances are that you will have been more productive, and you will have diminished your stress levels in the process.

References

  1. The Melbourne decision making questionnaire: an instrument for measuring patterns for coping with decisional conflict, by Leon Mann, Paul Burnett, Mark Radford & Steve Ford. Journal of Behavioral Decision Making (1997).
  2. Compulsive procrastination: Some self-reported characteristics, by Joseph Ferrari. Psychological Reports (1991).
  3. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by David Allen. Penguin Books (2002).
  4. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, by Stephen R. Covey. Simon & Schuster (2013).