Procrastination Station: Why you avoid decisions, even easy ones

Steve knew the project wasn’t working. Energy was waning; the milestones were falling further behind and the weekly meetings were stale, a rinse and repeat of the previous week.

In terms of priorities, this project wasn’t urgent. The deliverables would be helpful, but there was no burning platform, no big wins, no attention-grabbing failures. Steve knew he should probably reframe or even scrap it. But every time he thought about it, his mind would go to the conversations he’d need to have. How would he explain making a change? Who would he need to talk to? It was a benign boring mess.

And therein lies the problem. With no guiding purpose, and without clear criteria for what good looks like, it’s easier to kick the can down the road. We see this problem all the time in our consulting practice. It’s why:

  • Companies juggle too many projects without prioritizing them (and letting some go).
  • Leadership teams allow bad behavior to continue without calling it out.

Sunk costs are part of the problem. Most of us are reluctant to acknowledge failure. When you make a decision to stop or pivot, your losses – be of time and/or resources – come into sharp focus. Avoiding the decision enables you to live in the fantasy world where things get better.

Another challenge is disruption. Decisions, even good ones, create extra work. And let’s be honest, decisions often require uncomfortable conversation. Firing someone or eliminating pet projects generates reactions most leaders prefer to avoid.

Overcoming the stagnating pull of sunk costs and discomfort of disruption requires more than just commitment to being decisive. This is where clarity of purpose can help. An organization that understands the long-term impact they are trying to have on their customers (and the world) has less tolerance for projects and people who are misaligned. Purpose provides a lens on decision-making that keeps you from prolonging problems in two key areas:

  1. Purpose instills strategic clarity

A clear purpose enables leaders to decide what matters and what doesn’t. For example, our client Atlantic Capital Bank’s Noble Purpose is: We fuel prosperity. That simple phrase acts as a guardrail that helps leaders decide which markets and businesses they want to be in, and where they don’t. If it’s not the best way to fuel prosperity for their clients and their communities, they don’t do it.

  1. Purpose enables clear behavioral expectations

As you might imagine, when your purpose is “We fuel prosperity” you don’t have time for bad behavior. In EY’s The State of the Debate on Purpose in Business,” America’s Vice Chair Bob Patton says, ‘Purpose makes managements task much easier. If you align the individual’s purpose and their passion to the organization’s purpose and its passion, think about how liberating that is. If you don’t have to manage every minute of that employee’s time, you don’t have to be concerned with measuring every action that employee takes.” Clarity of purpose enables good performers to rise. The negative and unwilling stand out in stark contrast. This makes personnel decisions easier, and more obvious.

Next time you find yourself inside a messy conundrum, ask: What’s our purpose? Is this project or person helping us achieve it? Or are they hurting our progress?

Clarity of purpose doesn’t necessarily make your decisions easier, it does make them more obvious. The faster you make the decision, the faster you can move in the direction of your goals.

Lisa McLeod is the global expert in Noble Purpose. She is a keynote speaker and consultant who helps leaders increase competitive differentiation and emotional engagement.  She is the author of the bestsellers Selling with Noble Purpose and Leading with Noble Purpose.  Her clients include Google, Flight Centre and Roche.