Avoiding Avoidance

April 6, 2009

Hal Pomeranz, Deer Run Associates

At a recent tech event, I ended up having a conversation with Wendy Kincade and Colleen Dick about how we sometimes let critical projects slide. Wendy said a very wise thing, which is that when people are avoiding a project, it’s most often because they don’t think they’ll reach a successful outcome.  In some sense it becomes a vicious cycle: we know we really should be making progress on that big project, but yet we somehow always find other things to be working on that allow us to avoid it.  Of course, the longer we avoid it, the less time we have to complete the project and it only becomes bigger and scarier as a result of the shrinking time window.

Full speed into the unknown

I’ve certainly come to recognize this behavior in myself.  It’s much more comfortable to spend your days doing small, tactical tasks that have short completion times and satisfying outcomes.  It’s a huge leap of faith to set out to tackle and enormous project when you’re not sure if you have all the skills necessary to accomplish the task, where the end of the project is not clearly in sight, and where the cost of failure may be high.  It gives me an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach, not unlike the feeling you get when contemplating stepping off from a great height.

When I recognize this feeling in myself, I immediately take steps to start tackling the project, because I know from previous experience that if I let it linger the situation is only going to get worse.  Here are some tactics that I’ve developed for getting over the hump:

1. Break it up: Vast monolithic projects are daunting, so break the project up into a set of deliverables, milestones, and dependencies.  Then outline the steps necessary to reach each component of the project.  You don’t have to create a formal project plan– in fact, I’ve seen people spend all their time grooming a plan in MS Project, just to avoid getting started on the actual work.  A simple outline format is fine.

2. Pick an easy one: Once you’ve got a notion of the individual tasks you need to accomplish to finish your project, pick one of the tasks that you think you can complete quickly and get it done.  During our conversation, Colleen commented, “I know that if I can just knock one thing down, that gives me energy to push further into the project.”

3. Make it fun: What motivates you?  I really enjoy figuring out and mastering new technology.  So if there’s a component of the project that requires me to do a bunch of research to figure something out, I’ll tend to do that first plus give myself leeway to spend extra time really getting mastery of that subject.  While I need to be careful to prevent turning the research into an avoidance exercise in and of itself, I also know that any mastery I acquire will be useful at some point in the future, even if it’s not directly relevant to the project at hand.  Some people reward themselves after completing a particular part of the project– take a break to play your favorite video game, hang out with friends, go for a hike, whatever.

4. Consider past success: Reflect on the fact that you’ve accomplished difficult tasks in the past.  Remember the satisfaction you felt when you finally shipped those projects.  Use these feelings to reinforce your belief that you’ll be successful at the project you’re currently embarking on.

While I’ve come to know my own avoidance behaviors and learned to take steps to work around them, I don’t think I’ll ever be entirely free of them.  I think it’s just a natural human risk aversion response.  However, I also recognize that one has to take risks to accomplish great things.  I have a quote from the explorer Magellan on the wall in my office and I look at it often:

Unlike the mediocre, the intrepid spirits seek victory over those things that seem impossible… They embark on the most daring of all endeavors… to meet the shadowy future without fear and conquer the unknown.

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4 Responses to “Avoiding Avoidance”

  1. John Moore said

    Hal, I enjoyed the post, as always. You are right that the projects that people avoid are often the ones that they have the most fear of completing. It might be the deadline is tight or they lack the knowledge or skills and fear failure.

    When you encounter the situation you’re best bet is to both follow the advice above and to also discuss it with your boss and your peers. Once you find an approach that you feel comfortable with, or at the least know that you have support all around you, it is easier to push through.

    John
    http://johnfmoore.wordpress.com
    http://twitter.com/JohnFMoore

  2. tixrus said

    We all do this. The difference in outcomes is between how critical are the things each person chooses to neglect. In the tech world I tend to practice avoidance on some of the small but critical tactical tasks that I KNOW I can do and bore me to tears. I tend to focus on the midrange tech tasks that I am pretty sure I can do but may present something of a challenge. We all put off huge jobs that appear monolithic or undoable. Even when I’m making progress breaking a big task down to doable ones sometimes I still get distracted by “cool” aspects and side effects of doable tasks that do not directly inline with overall goals. like while learning to do SMS all the potential cracks you could do ……. whap! And of course in the bigger arena I have historically neglected tasks involving human relationships, because for an INTP like me, those are the ones with the most uncertain of outcomes.

  3. qhartman said

    Agreed, a common problem. My trick to get past this is to try to get into a routine with the project. I force myself to work on something related to the project at a certain time every day. I don’t have a certain minimum time that has to be spent, but I have to “put a dent in it” every day. Sometimes I spend five minutes, sometimes I get into “the zone” and sink in hours. So long as I put some attention in, I feel like I’m moving forward and that crippling “Oh my god, what was I thinking in taking this on?” is kept at bay a little longer.

    I’ll also second what tixrus mentions above, I tend to put off the boring tasks moreso than the scary ones. The scary ones are at least exciting.

  4. Thanks Hal for the quote. I almost sound like I know what I’m talking about. I totally agree with your outline, but I think it may be a bit simplistic. If it were that easy, we would all be able to get out of the gate. And every time.

    I think John Moore is on the right track when he says that, when we are stuck, we should talk to a boss or mentor or someone who might have an answer. I don’t know how many times I have wondered why someone wasn’t performing, only to find out that they just needed to be shown a way to start.

    And finally, I lead a discussion once titled: Procrastination: Why We Don’t Do What We Don’t Do. I can’t say that the group came up with any definitive answers, but we did have fun speculating.

    Wendy

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