by Jo Knight Dutkewich as seen in APeeling Decisions
My name’s Jo and I’m a procrastinator. I don’t mean to brag but I am exceptionally good at it. There isn’t a task, dilemma, or quandary large or small that I can’t not take, avoid and delay for as long as humanly possible. I have been this way for as long as I can remember; a procrastinateur extraordinaire from birth (I have the forceps scar on my neck to prove it). As a small child growing up the industrial heart of England (queue Peaky Blinders), if there was a book report to write, a chore to be completed or an invitation to respond to you would find me doing..well, not any of those things anyway. My avoidance did not discriminate; it was absolute. Although, in my own defense, it was the early 90’s; the opportunities for distraction via soft rock videos on VH1 and MTV were abundant.
By the end of my 4-year undergraduate degree I had perfected my procrastination so profoundly that I almost didn’t graduate. In my dogged pursuit of the “perfect” dissertation I took so much time making sure I was happy with it (I never was) that I missed the deadline to submit it to the visiting book binder. My graduation was only made possible due to the kindness of the book-binders wife, who, (between my sobs,) graciously offered (relented) that if I could hand deliver my manuscript to their home it would be the “absolutely last and very final chance” to have it bound intime for my deadline.
And so, off I set. Armed with hand scribbled Map Quest directions, me and my 100 pages of loose manuscript tenuously navigated the rural property; arriving barely in time to make it to the still hot press. That evening, after finally making it home (having become horribly and predictably lost whilst trying to reverse engineer my barely legible directions,) full of anxiety, regret and fear I made a decision (two if you count the Chianti). It was a decision so consequential that it changed the entire trajectory of my life; never again was I going to subject myself to the stress, trauma, and performance killer that my self-imposed procrastination had delivered.
My name’s Jo and I used to have a procrastination problem, until I finally realised, I had a “decision making problem.”
I remember my reconning vividly. It was 1998 and I was desperate to get into a new pin striped suit that I had (ambitiously) bought two sizes smaller than I wore. I was bemoaning my inability to lose 15lbs to a friend. This 5-foot-2 powerhouse wasn’t having any of it.
She looked me square in the eyes and shook her head. In her thick Northern Irish accent, she said to me “you are not losing weight because haven’t made up your mind to.” I was as a gasp with indignation (in that special way that we Brits are; see Downton Abbey.) For the next 15 minutes we went back and forth with my insistences. “Of course, I have,” “how can you say that?” “That’s outrageous” etc. My friend didn’t waiver. She simply shook her head. “No. No, you haven’t. You haven’t lost weight because you haven’t made the decision to. You haven’t made peace with the changes that you will need to make to lose 15lbs. You don’t want to not be able to eat what you crave. You don’t want to have to go to the gym when you are tired, and you don’t want to have to choose an apple over cake.” I fell silent as the realisation finally dawned on me. It was like a giant (sad, hungry, cake-less) lightbulb had appeared cartoon like above my head.
I realised three things that day:
1) Inaction is not caused by procrastination. We avoid, distract ourselves and delay taking action when we haven’t really made a decision
2) We don’t really make decisions until once we have made peace with the changes, pains and unknowns that decision will potentially bring and
3) I really wanted to learn more about human behaviour, why we do what we do and how to get better results. The third one has become one of the true loves of my life and the reason
I do the work I do.
When it comes to decision making what I have learned is this; human beings are naturally terrible decision makers. Making timely and effective decisions is a learned skill that is developed overtime by pushing past many of your natural instincts. This is why it is so difficult; we have to overcome our instincts, beliefs, thinking and fears.
Your brain does want to make decisions. And certainly not complex and far-reaching ones at that. As far as your brain is concerned it has “one job.” To keep you alive. Not to thrive. Not to have unimaginable success but to simply survive. In prehistoric times this meant keeping you safe in the cave and fleeing danger or fighting it out when there was no escape. There was quite enough to do (thank you very much) with simply surviving. These days the “cave” is our sofa, Netflix and the job we don’t love and but provides a regular paycheck. In our evolution, we have added a 3rd survival mechanism to complement flight or fight; avoid. When danger is not physically imminent humans will “protect” themselves from uncertainty, discomfort, and pain through avoiding. We delay making decisions often until they can no longer be avoided. We delay acting until there is no other choice. You will often hear people say, “I do my best work under pressure.” This is another example of our brains trying to spare us the discomfort of self awareness. The truth is we often avoid for so long that we do our ONLY work under pressure. As you can imagine; this state of neglect and panic is not where our best decisions and work happens.
So, with this in mind the real question becomes “what can we do to become better decision makers?” Well, that’s a big question and research suggests there is a tonne. For me, there are a few things that have worked for me and I have made enormous decisions in my life; emigrating (a few times), getting divorced (once), leaving a highly paid secure job without another one lined up (4 times), turning down the security of attractive job offers to remain mistress of my own destiny (repeatedly), getting married for the second time (one of my favourite decisions). These days I make decisions realty easily finding myself saying “no” a lot so that I can say “yes” to what I want and what I know will take me forwards.
Jo Knight Dutkewich is a Leadership Coach who helps businesses and individuals to thrive on purpose. She is a skilled strategist, consultant, coach, facilitator, curriculum developer and trainer. She has helped businesses to saved multi millions of dollars in cost, increase profitability, improve customer satisfaction, and improve employee wellness, engagement, performance, and retention. She lives with her husband and three sons in the Fraser Valley just outside of Vancouver Canada.