Do you ever procrastinate? Don't we all—at least occasionally? But for a small-business owner, procrastination can have serious consequences. It can mean blown deadlines, missed opportunities and lost customers.
Ironically, the things we put off are often the most important things in our business. We briskly get to work answering emails, while ignoring the small-business loan application we really need to complete that’s rotting at the bottom of a pile of papers. My two business partners are incredibly productive—but at any given moment, even these paragons of efficiency have at least one big, looming project they can’t bring themselves to start.
Tricks and rewards sometimes work, but to really kick-start yourself out of your procrastination funk, you’ve got to dig deep into the reasons behind it.
Are you procrastinating due to:
Fear? Fear of failure is the obvious choice here—if you never try, you can’t fail, so you keep delaying whatever's hanging over your head. But there’s also the fear of success. What if you completed that loan application, got the money and grew your business beyond your wildest dreams? Are you afraid you wouldn’t be able to handle the growth, that you’d have no time for your family, that you’d have to give a big speech at your next industry conference? Figure out what you’re afraid of. If the fear is unfounded, it'll become obvious. If it’s telling you something important—such as, you don’t want to grow your business because you enjoy your current lifestyle—then listen carefully.
Burnout? Maybe you’re putting off a huge task because you’re fried. If entrepreneurship is starting to feel like a grind, figure out how to freshen it up. Could you delegate the task you’re procrastinating or at least share some of the labor? Is there a way to do it differently so it doesn’t feel like the same old, same old? Try breaking up the types of tasks you do. If you’ve been writing proposals for a solid week, revamping your business plan is likely to feel like a chore. Instead, take a few days to make client calls or do something completely unrelated, then start the big task when you’re refreshed.
Incompetence? If a project is outside our comfort zone, we often delay getting started. There are two solutions here: Either delegate the project to someone who is competent, or become competent yourself. If the skill will benefit you as a business owner (say, public speaking or networking), it’s likely worth learning. Take a class, study the subject online or get a colleague to coach you. If the skill won’t be useful to you in the long term (updating your fashion boutique’s website), hand it off to an employee or contractor, and focus on the tasks in your wheelhouse.
Distraction? There are tons of distractions in the average business owner’s day—from workplace crises to employees dropping by your office, from the temptations of Facebook to the temptations of the fridge (if you work at home). To help you keep your blinders on, set a time to start on the project, treat it like a meeting with your most important client, and eliminate distractions however you need to—whether by turning off your email and phone, shutting your office door, working from Starbucks or staying up til 4 a.m. to get the job done.
Temporary ADD? When you try to work on the dreaded project, does your brain start buzzing with a zillion other things you need to do? Do a “brain dump” and write down every “to do” that’s racing through your head, from “Pick up dry cleaning” to “Call client before 4 p.m.” to “Redo spreadsheet” to “Buy Mom’s birthday present.” That way, you know you won’t forget anything and you can get focused on what's really important.
Complexity? Sometimes a project seems so big, it’s just too overwhelming to start. If you’re staring down a project with a million moving parts, begin by breaking it into small steps. I mean really small—like “Find Joe’s phone number” or “Make a copy of 2011 tax returns.” Complete at least one step every day. You’ll typically find that once you take a step, momentum will keep you going. But even if you only complete one step a day, you’ll still get there eventually.
Emotion? Does a project require dealing with someone you can’t stand or revisiting an unpleasant situation from the past? Maybe you need to do something uncomfortable, like calling a valued client who’s suddenly late paying a bill. Don’t sweep these feelings under the rug. Face up to the emotion that’s making you stall, and realize the only way to get past it is to complete the task so you can move on.
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