14 August, 2023
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, I had noticed that a majority of people I engaged with day to day were becoming progressively more anxious about doing new activities. They would worry more about all of the things that could go wrong, and would procrastinate longer before starting in an already stressed (and often negative) state, immaterial of whether the task was for work or pleasure. Roll forward four years to today, and people’s anxiety about doing new things is even more apparent, and their procrastination is even greater.
I found the beginnings of a tool-kit to counter this anxiety in 2014, which I have further developed over a decade of training people in complex problem solving. I prefer teaching people this tool-kit in person, but so many people could benefit from it that I have decided to make it the subject of this blog-post. Here we go.
Why should you not be unnecessarily anxious about undertaking a new activity? Because you already have valuable experience, skills, and mentors, which means you never start from zero. Since you never start from zero, you should reduce your anxiety in accordance with the positives you have as a result of previous experience, existing skills, and trusted mentors.
Kathryn D. Cramer’s book, Lead Positive, was published in 2014. The book’s subtitle succinctly summarises what you can learn from this excellent book: What Highly Effective Leaders See, Say, and Do. Cramer’s book provided me with foundations to help people get beyond anxiety and procrastination in relation to undertaking new tasks.
Cramer’s research led her to conclude that three steps are critical to decreasing anxiety and procrastination to increase performance. You need to work out whether what you are about to do is similar to something you have already been successful at. You need to work out what skills you already possess that have contributed to your previous successes, which will contribute to you being successful at a new task. And, Finally, you need to tell someone that you trust how the new task is similar to something you have already been successful at, how you are going to apply your existing skills to the new task, and get their advice and approval before moving forward.
Cramer found that teams who went through these steps consistently performed better and more confidently than teams who had not. When I started teaching people this tool-kit, they immediately became more confident and willing to get started, which led to better outcomes.
As I learned new methods for solving complex problems, and taught more diverse people bigger and better problem solving tool-kits, I began to add relevant tools to Cramer’s framework, which have worked well for different individuals and teams.
When you ask yourself whether the task you are going to undertake is similar to a task you have already been successful at, go further than this by looking for comparable projects that have been comprehensively described and analysed from the perspective of Reference Class Forecasting. Look for comparable projects that have succeeded and failed, and articulate how your project is both similar and different to these examples. This will enable you to see your future task as similar to something that has already been completed, and to see any risks from a clear and defined perspective.
When you list the skills you already possess that will be useful for completing your task, also reflect on how you gained these skills, and how you can attain new skills that you need to avoid failure. Look at skill acquisition from Daniel Coyle’s perspective in The Talent Code, or James Clear’s perspective in Atomic Habits. If you don’t already have a structured approach to gaining new skills, make this a high priority task for the near future. And if you don’t already have processes for achieving Strategic Alignment and Empowered Action, then make the time to read and implement One Mission.
When you are ready to tell someone you trust about how your plan is similar to other successful plans, and what skills you are going to apply to achieve a positive outcome, it helps to know why doing so has a positive impact. Getting support and agreement from someone you trust is a form of Social Proof, as explained by Robert Cialdini. A trusted mentor can provide you with Social Proof, and you can provide your team with Social Proof. Seeing that successful and respected people believe in your approach, because of their previous experience, can significantly reduce the anxiety you might feel related to moving forward with a plan.
It is important to remember that you are unique, but the tasks you need to complete aren’t: they are very similar to tasks that have been done before, and there are people who will confirm that you are on track, or give you some advice if you are not. Critically, you need to get started in a structured way that reduces your anxiety, which will empower you and your team.
If you don’t have the time to read the above books and create relevant processes, then please get in touch with me. I love helping people to succeed, and it always makes me smile when I get to contribute to people reducing their anxiety and overcoming procrastination.