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Taking time to play at work(TNS)—The fun of the holidays is over and most of us are back at work, hoping to focus on new goals.

That brings us, inevitably, to the archenemy of goals: procrastination. A good example of procrastination, and I’m not making this up, is me typing one-and-a-half sentences of this column and then thinking, “Oh, I should check out what’s new on iTunes this week,” and almost clicking away. That really happened. (It’s possible that I have a problem.)

But enough about me.

We all possess the human inclination to put off things that aren’t fun. But we can’t do that all the time, so in the spirit of moving everyone forward, I found some wise advice from Heidi Grant Halvorson, a social psychologist and associate director for the Motivation Science Center at the Columbia University Business School.

On the Harvard Business Review’s website (I read it to keep up on the latest in erotic workplace jargon), Halvorson has an article under the headline: “How to Make Yourself Work When You Just Don’t Want To.”

She presents a few strategies, but I found one of the key points to be this: “Figuring out which strategy to use depends on why you are procrastinating in the first place.”

How dare you force us to engage in self-reflection, Halvorson! Nobody has time for that nonsense.

I’ll get to her strategies, but first consider how often we look for advice on improving a bad behavior without ever considering what’s actually causing the behavior.

I asked Halvorson via email (she had a wicked sore throat and couldn’t speak by phone) about the importance of looking inward when considering a work behavior that needs improvement:

“First, if you don’t understand why you are doing something — you just try to tackle the behavior itself — then the underlying cause remains, which will keep pulling you back into bad habits. It’s like taking something for a runny nose and expecting it to cure the cold; your nose will be just as runny when the meds wear off, and you’re right back where you started.

“The second reason the ‘why’ matters is that different whys point you in the direction of different ways to improve. Let’s say you want to get along better and work more effectively with your coworkers — if the problem is that you behave arrogantly at times, then being a bit more modest and valuing the opinions of your colleagues more is the way to go. But if the problem is that you don’t communicate very effectively, then modesty isn’t going to help you.

“Doctors diagnose the ‘why’ to decide on the right course of action. We all need to do that when we want to improve.”

Any suggestions on how to overcome the difficulties of taking a critical look at oneself?

“Something I like to do is to not just focus on the moment I’m in, but to take the longer view. You assess where you are now — say, how effective a leader you are, or how good you are with time management. Then you think about how far you’ve come with respect to that skill — say, where you were a year ago, or five years ago. Then you think about where you want to end up — what does success look like?

“This ‘where you were, where you are, where you are going’ pattern is great for giving feedback, and for self-assessment too. It gives you a (deserved) sense of progress, while still keeping you focused on improvement.”

Whether your goal is to overcome procrastination or address some other flaw, following advice just isn’t enough. You need to figure out what causes you to behave in a detrimental way.

Specific to procrastination, I asked Halvorson for the main reasons people put things off. She gave these three: we’re afraid that we won’t do something well; we don’t “feel like” doing something; or the thing we need to do seems unpleasant.

If you’re afraid you might screw up, Halvorson suggests adopting a “prevention focus,” which means you consider the trouble you’ll get in if you don’t complete the task. Worry can be a strong motivator, and realizing you have to get something done to maintain your good standing at work can help override fear of failure.

What if I just don’t feel like doing something? That, Halvorson wrote, “is nonsense.”

“Most of us don’t feel like getting out of bed in the morning, but we do it anyway. Action does not require good feelings — it requires commitment. Just do it, seriously.”

Yes, ma’am.

For the last item, not wanting to do something because it seems unpleasant, Halvorson recommends “if-then planning.”

You tell yourself: “If it’s 11 a.m., then I’m going to work on my expense report until noon.”

Or: “If Bob hasn’t apologized for eating the last doughnut by 2 p.m., I’m going to confront him about it.”

This creates a specific time when you have to do whatever it is you’re dreading, making it harder to put off.

I’ve long argued that no matter how much you love your job, there will always be parts of it that are a drag. As long as you can say 51 percent or more of your work is enjoyable, you’re probably doing OK.

So don’t let procrastination get the better of you. Figure out what prompts you to put things off and then build a strategy that will work.

I’m going to start working on mine.

As soon as I check out what’s new on iTunes. (I definitely have a problem.)

©2016 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.