‘I have plenty of experience of complicating simple tasks’

Give yourself less time to do things and you’ll do them faster

An acquaintance sat in a London pub every Friday evening moaning about his boss – and taught me an interesting lesson about stress, while boring me half to death. His complaints concerned her capacity for generating drama as she careened – yes, he used the word “careened” – about the place in a state of crisis.

The crisis, he complained, invariably concerned projects that should have been started weeks earlier, but that she put off until deadlines got so close they resembled a herd of angry elephants thundering down on herself and her resentful subordinates.

I found it intriguing that the sources of stress were not urgent crises that came out of nowhere, but projects that could have been done quite calmly if they had been started on time.

Why should this be? Part of the answer came many years later in a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. It suggests that short-term, urgent tasks are more attractive to us than long-term projects, which we knew already. However, it also suggests that when we get long deadlines, we tend to complicate the job and this makes escaping into "urgent" tasks, like checking your email, more attractive.


The article, by Meng Zhu of Johns Hopkins Carey Business School in the US, reports, for instance, that people given a short time to complete an online questionnaire were more likely to complete it than those given a longer deadline. The latter wrote more – complicating the process – but were less likely to finish the job.

Voucher deadlines

I have plenty of experience of complicating simple tasks that don’t have to be done right now. For instance, suppose you were to give me a gift voucher for a bookshop that I can use at any time in the next couple of years.

Sounds simple enough: go to the shop and buy something. If the voucher was going to expire this week, that is exactly what I would do. But taking the urgency away gives me the opportunity to add complications. It’s a voucher that somebody bought me so I should use it for some really special book and, of course, I have to wait for that book to come along.

Suppose the bookshop also sells stationery and I happen to need some reams of paper, next year’s diary, manila folders and envelopes, and that the voucher would cover the cost? But that won’t do. I have to wait for that something special. I have immediately complicated life for myself.

Health is the ultimate long-term project. But here, too often, the urgent wins out. If you have a choice between ringing up to make an appointment for a routine check-up – an event that could have life-long benefits – or getting to the shop that sells those nice Italian shirts and is closing down tomorrow, you’re probably going to head for the shirts. Well, I would.

Of course, when I finally run out of time, I am surprised at how very little energy it would have taken to do tasks earlier and have them out of the way.

What does this mean as you contemplate the work that was waiting for you on your return from your holidays?

Shorten the deadlines and cut out the complications I guess.

Special addiction

I’m not so sure though. Procrastination has its own special addiction. For instance, we will all procrastinate about what to get our Significant Other for Christmas until it gets as close as that herd of elephants. We will complicate the task by imagining we have to find the perfect gift.

In the end, lots of us will do what we could have done all along – walk into the usual shop and buy our SO the thing we know she/he likes and that we end up buying every Christmas.

But next year it will be different, we tell ourselves: no more putting things off. We’ll even have time to figure out that perfect gift, the gift that makes up for all those last minute bottles of perfume.

Meanwhile, let me dither no more: Happy Christmas.

Padraig O’Morain (pomorain@yahoo.com, @PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is ‘Kindfulness’. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.