Sunday, July 18, 2004

Putting it off? Maybe smart, or maybe not


The Daily Grind

For many in the world of work, procrastination is pure avoidance behavior - that is, it's much easier to avoid work than to do the work.

For others, like former IBM Chairman Louis Gerstner Jr., procrastination is something of an odd but functional management strategy.

Gerstner, a captain of American industry, was in Cincinnati recently to talk about work, mentors, management, world commerce and leadership.

The third annual Fifth Third Bank Business & Market Series attracted more than 1,400 to the Aronoff Center, where Gerstner offered insight on the positive dynamics of procrastination and procrastinators.

"I found a mentor who always kept a stack of work on his desk but did nothing with it," Gerstner told the full house. "So I asked him about it. He said that half the work solves itself if you just leave it alone. And it's turned out to be true."

The world is full of nuggets and proverbs about work and procrastination:

• Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow.

• If anything were worth doing, it would have already been done.

• How does a project get a year behind schedule? One day at a time.

The approach from Gerstner's mentor may have worked because many tasks at some firms are irrelevant, said Rodger Roeser, vice president of Justice & Young, a marketing firm based in Newtown.

"A lot of companies are masters of busywork," he said.

Undone work a risk

But Dr. Sandy Matthews, a Kenwood psychologist who also coaches executives, said the risk in a pile of work that never goes away is that the work itself becomes depressing to look at or think about day after day.

It takes on a life of its own.

The baggage gets taken home each night, and back in the office the next day, the pile hasn't changed and may have even grown. The worker's attitude has probably remained the same, too.

"There is energy expended in your head, if only from ruminating about it, and that is really taxing," Matthews said. "Anytime you're ruminating about things you ought to be doing, it's draining off your creative energy."

Matthews suggests a few remedies:

• Reduce large, complex tasks into more-manageable and realistic steps. Then, get started.

• Do something, no matter how small. "Many times procrastination is just about getting started," she said.

• If you work for a procrastinator, strap on your seat belt and realize that your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device because your ship is sinking.

"They project stuff onto you," Matthews said. "There are expectations they have for you that they don't hold for themselves. They are saying that 'It's OK if I procrastinate but you had better not.' "

Over all, Matthews has a benign view of procrastination. Many of the delayed tasks or duties are not exactly life-and-death concerns.

"I don't see it as a character flaw, that's for sure," she said. "So many people do this. Whether it's business or personal details that have come into the office, it is a common problem for executives as well as the rest of the population."

E-mail jeckberg@enquirer.com




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