In an earlier article, I discussed how procrastination can arise from a general feeling of dissatisfaction—an attitude of “nonacceptance” toward the world—and how letting yourself fully experience that dissatisfaction, without judging it or pushing it aside, can help you overcome the habit. My focus here is another common cause of procrastination. I suggest that, when we feel the need to adopt a contrived, artificial persona in our jobs, we create the kind of frustration that has us put off our work.
My recent work with a client was a good example of this point. I worked for a while with a lawyer who wanted to get out of the office earlier in the day. She had the sense that, although her job was demanding, she could find a way to spend less time at work. The biggest obstacle she faced was her tendency to lose focus and procrastinate—to start surfing the web, calling her friends, reading the newspaper, and doing other things that provided brief relief from work but ultimately had her spend more time in the office.
One of the first questions I asked her was what was usually going on when she started procrastinating. Was there any specific activity at work, I wondered, that she often found herself resisting?
After some thought, my client realized she tended to start procrastinating when she was drafting legal papers that took what she called a self-righteous and highly aggressive tone. She felt uncomfortable writing in this style—so much so that, each time she’d draft a few sentences in this blaming, holier-than-thou voice, she felt her shoulders stiffen painfully. No wonder she often felt the need to stop and do something else.
“What is it about sounding really aggressive that doesn’t sit well with you?” I asked.
“It feels like I’m pretending to be someone I’m not,” she replied. “I’m just not the kind of person who gets outraged and condemns people all the time.”
As we explored this issue further, she also recognized that she felt some pressure to adopt a hyper-aggressive tone in her writing because she was female. She worried that her predominantly male superiors would tend to assume, because she was a woman, that she’d be easily pushed around, and thus they’d be less likely to consider her for partnership. She felt the need to reassure the higher-ups by adopting a “take no prisoners” writing style. But no matter how often she drafted her papers this way, she never seemed to get comfortable with it—something about it kept bothering her.
We decided to experiment with having her write with a style that came more naturally to her. Her preference was to convey her points in a concise, matter-of-fact way, without lots of overblown, blaming rhetoric. Interestingly, when she adopted her new approach to drafting, she found herself procrastinating less often. When she no longer bore the burden of adopting a contrived, hyper-aggressive persona in her writing, she didn’t have to take frequent breaks to deal with her discomfort anymore. What’s more, her superiors seemed just as happy with her work.
As my client’s example illustrates, we sometimes find ourselves procrastinating when we feel the need to put up a facade while working. For some reason, we become convinced that who we are just isn’t good enough for our work environment, and we develop a “work persona” with the characteristics we think our superiors, clients and colleagues prefer to see. For example, perhaps we think we need to try to look more outgoing, organized, submissive, happy, or something else.
Unfortunately, maintaining this persona takes a lot of extra work, and on some level wearing this mask makes us uncomfortable. Thus, when we feel the need to adopt a work persona, we find ourselves doing anything we can to avoid working. It’s no surprise that, if we believe working requires us to be something other than what we are, we tend toward procrastination.
Sometimes, as in my client’s example, we aren’t fully conscious of the areas where we’re putting up a false front for work purposes. We just have a nagging, inexplicable discomfort with working that has doing our tasks seem like constant struggle. In these situations, as I did with my client, it’s helpful to ask ourselves what specific activities seem to give us the most trouble.
For instance, perhaps the “problem activity” for you is negotiating, writing, talking to your boss or customers, or something else. When you discover an area of your working life that seems particularly problematic, look closely to see whether you feel pressure to change your personality when you’re involved in it. Your discomfort may result from the “work persona” you’re projecting to impress or pacify others.
What do you do when you find that you’re holding up a facade to succeed in your working environment? Simply dropping the facade is easier said than done. Many people, when they become conscious of the artificial personalities they’re adopting at work, fear that discarding those personalities will harm their performance.
This is why I usually recommend that people start by temporarily experimenting with bringing more of themselves to their work. If they’re displeased with the results, they can always revert to their old way of doing things. But this approach at least allows them to find out whether it’s possible to perform well at work without having to revamp their personality.
As with my client’s situation, people often find they don’t need their working personalities as badly as they thought. Surprisingly enough, their superiors and colleagues are more accepting of their authentic personalities than they’d anticipated. What’s more, because people tend to procrastinate less often when they’re no longer burdened with the need to wear a false face at work, often they actually please their employers by dispensing with their facades.
In her book Who We Could Be At Work, business consultant Margaret A. Lulic has an inspiring passage on how abandoning our role-playing at work, and bringing all of ourselves to what we do, creates more peace and productivity:
In the health field, we’re learning that human beings are complex wholes and that we can create better health by treating the whole person rather than just isolated parts. When we act on this same premise in the workplace, we create healthier, stronger organizations. The starting point is to bring all of who we are to work and to learn to live with each other in that wholeness. When we are boxed and labeled by titles, education, sex, race and beliefs, great potential from each person is wasted.
As it turns out, discarding the masks we wear in the work context can actually free us up to work more efficiently, and perhaps even enjoy what we do.
(This article appeared in the Carnival of Self-Mastery, located at http://www.ananddhillon.com/blog/2008/07/carnival-of-self-mastery-july-29-2008/.)