The Procrastinating Elephant

Every workplace has one. An elephant in the room so to speak. A job or project that needs completion but no one wants to do it. It’s passed around like a hot potato, usually to the newest recruit, who stares at it in terror, with no idea on how to start. The issue then loiters, like the smell of heated tuna from the lunchroom, and wafts across the To-Do list of many, but never reaches the finish line.

I’ve seen a few of these stinky tasks in my time. When I started a new role back in 2013 the first job I got was the development of a recruitment program. I was the seventh person to be given to difficult task of finding more volunteers in a rural community with a population of just 3,141 people. As the newest to the team, I was the proud new owner of the problem. In 2015, it was delivering a series of workshops on a topic no one wanted to learn about. In 2017, it was the development of a Business Continuity Plan for emergency response for 40% of the NSW coast line. And two weeks ago, it was an emergency operations plan for a seismic catastrophic disaster….

Motivation seems to be the challenging start point. When the office elephant lands on your desk, how can you get it moving? There’s plenty of research that recommends eating your elephant one bite at a time, breaking the task into smaller chunks to see progress and maintain momentum. Then there is the committee club. They recommend you find a few friends and task them with parts of the elephant to help keep you motivated and supported. Both of these are very valid, but rely on you being able to get started in the first place.

Getting started for me, begins close to the finish line. My personal tip is to set a wildly unrealistic challenge for myself and then tell my boss I can do it. They think the task will take 6 weeks to do, I say I’ll do it in 4. For me, I need a deadline. I need that push to get me across the finish line, dragging that fat elephant by the tail. My parents would tell you that I was the President of Procrastination when it came to completing assignments at school and nothing has changed. That last minute dash up to the due date for a school assignment has now transformed into a last minute dash up to the delivery date on a work task.

I spoke about this recently with my mentor, talking about how I possibly should to work on my time management and prioritisation skills to help me develop as a leader.

He looked across the table at me and smiled.

Why?” he asked.

Emergency management is the ultimate in working to an unrealistic deadline with impossible challenges.”

Perhaps I’ve been creating my own little cyclone each time I grab the office elephant? Maybe what looks like procrastination to others is actually the lead up to creating the environment I work best in and elephants can be herded across the finish line?

Peter Bregman has a different take. He believes it’s not the task you should be focused on, it’s the transition to doing something about the task that is more important. You can read his article, “How to Actually Start the Task You’ve Been Avoiding” at:

Have you herded any elephants lately and how did you get started? Leave a comment below.

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