Last month, I had the privilege of interviewing productivity guru David Allen, who wrote a seminal work on the topic called “Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity”. At the Financial Planning Association’s Annual Conference, David captivated 1,800 CFP® professionals with a terrific explanation of how easily we can be distracted and the best way to find focus and vision. I thought about David after trying to conduct research on why people procrastinate. It’s not that we are inherently lazy, and according to Joseph Ferrari, a professor of psychology at DePaul University, “It really has nothing to do with time-management…As I tell people, to tell the chronic procrastinator to just do it would be like saying to a clinically depressed person, cheer up.”
Ferrari has found that as many as 20 percent of people may be chronic procrastinators and it causes them stress, a drop in overall well-being and not surprisingly, it can cost them money too -- think late fees on credit cards, which add up to billions of dollars annually; filing taxes at the last minute, which prevents many from claiming many deductions to which they are entitled; and of course, failure to save for retirement, which can create financial problems in the future.
It’s not that procrastinators don’t know what to do—they understand that they really should track their expenses or draft a will, but they can’t bring themselves to do it. Ferrari says that some procrastinators avoid making financial decisions due to a psychological reluctance to be held responsible for a decision. Perhaps one spouse avoids all of the financial and investment decisions not because he or she “isn’t good at that stuff”, but the uninvolved spouse wants to retain the right to second-guess the money-managing spouse later!
How can procrastinators bridge the gap between intention and action? David Allen says that part of the problem is that all of the things we have to do are rattling around our brains, causing us to drive ourselves a little crazy. He notes, “Until you see yourself doing it, you won’t see how to do it”.
The good news is you can actually change your attention and focus by firing your neurons to be sensitive to the tasks that need addressing. Allen’s system starts by capturing all the things that need to get done; imposing discipline so that you are in control; and then creating a plan for next actions. Once you get the stuff out of your brain and write it down, you need to schedule time to check in on your progress. It can help to do this at the time of day when you have the most energy. Also, when you are addressing those hard-to-accomplish tasks, try to limit distractions. I know that may sound nearly impossible in our hyper-connected world, but for some chunk of time, remove audio and visual alerts of new messages, do not log into social media and avoid opening too many windows on your browser.
According to experts, pre-committing to goals can help. You can start by making a public declaration, because your friends and family can help you stick to your pledge. “We know from research that you are more likely to do something if you publicly post it,” Ferrari says.
There are also some concrete steps to take in your financial life, like establishing automatic deductions from your paycheck to a savings account, enrolling in a retirement plan and setting up auto-pay on as many bills as possible. If you think you need professional help, schedule that appointment and keep it!
Ferrari advises rewarding yourself for completing that to-do. It’s fun to share your accomplishment with one of your cheerleaders (spouse, parent, pal); spending extra time with your kids, your friends; or giving yourself a mental break by doing something physical. Finally, you can also treat yourself by spending small dollars on something…after all, you’ve earned it!