I was checking in at the Tampa airport after giving a talk to financial advisors on how to use empathy when someone from that session stopped me. She said, "I never thought that when my clients procrastinated, I could think of it in a psychological, emotional way. I'm now thinking about my clients putting off decisions in a whole new way. I need to ask each person more about their personal procrastination and how I can help."
Music to my ears.
That short conversation got me thinking that client procrastination, which happens all the time, is an opportunity for advisors to help clients make difficult decisions and take important actions. When clients procrastinate, they are struggling with moving forward, even though they actually want to. And advisors are in a position to help clients move through and past this struggle.
Most often procrastination is framed as a negative, even as a character flaw. When procrastinating, we are judged (by others and ourselves!) as lazy, incompetent, and disorganized, which is often far from the truth. We are also called obsessive and avoidant, which could be partially true, though not due to a personality flaw but more to feelings like fear or self-doubt, which can be helped (more on this later).
Procrastination is also seen as a moral or personal failing: if we were really at the top of our game, or a better person, we would get everything done efficiently and effectively. It's no wonder that procrastinating makes us feel terrible.
Change Your View of Procrastination
Here's the truth: this wholly negative characterization is inaccurate and simply not useful to advisors and clients, or anyone for that matter.
First, procrastination is normal. We all do it, and frequently with things that are most important to us. Who hasn't procrastinated at some point about financial decisions or actions? A survey found that more than two-thirds (68 percent) of adults age 55 or older admitted to procrastinating on retirement planning.1 For someone at that age, what's more important than figuring out your financial future when you're no longer earning a regular income?
So let's look at procrastination differently. It's not a character flaw, it's a flare. It's a signal by clients for help on decisions and actions most important to them. If you see their procrastination in a psychological, empathic way, you can figure out ways to help clients shift from a stymied, frustrated place toward reaching financial and life goals.
To help clients, you'll need to first understand that procrastination is defined by ambivalence. In psychological terms, that means having two competing feelings at the same time, and neither wins out. When procrastinating, your clients likely want to move ahead, and at the very same time, want to avoid moving ahead. You might ask, how do we know the client wants to move forward? They came to you for help!
Yet being complex humans, another side can get in the way. While clients often know what they want and need to do — what is good for them — they often don't do it. This can be most mystifying to both advisors and clients alike. This happens because money often brings up difficult and strong feelings that stymie forward momentum. Feelings like these get in the way:
- shame about falling short on these important tasks,
- guilt about letting oneself or others down,
- fear about the negative consequences in not taking action,
- anxiety about the negative consequences of taking the wrong action,
- self-doubt in not knowing what to do, how to do it, or doing it wrong,
- overwhelmed when faced with life's many immediate demands, and not getting to longer-term, challenging tasks,
- and, at a deeper level, fear of success or fear of failure.
How Advisors Can Help
Here's a real-life example:
Katie and Jason had a great first meeting with Andrea, their financial advisor. Katie left with insights into her goals, and felt motivated and relieved to finally get moving on organizing their finances. She left the meeting with clear tasks: get both her retirement account and family spending information together for their next meeting.
Jump forward five months and Katie hasn't done it and hasn't met with Andrea again. The tasks are still on her to-do list, along with shopping for groceries, a big work project, scheduling afterschool activities for her kids, and taking care of her aging mother. Truly, she wants to move forward, but she hasn't, and now is embarrassed to connect with Andrea.
There are four ways Andrea could have helped manage this, even at the first meeting.
1. Talk about procrastination from the start, before it begins. Andrea could ask her clients about their procrastination style or habits (keeping in mind that two out of three have them). She should "bring it up and bring it in" to their meeting, that is, talk about it proactively. She could say:
This is a great plan we've put together. But from my experience, I know these tasks are often hard to get to. Most of us have very busy lives and put off what's not right in front of us and what might be stressful. Because I know you want to do this, let's talk about what might get in the way and how I can help.
Raising the issue normalizes procrastination and takes away the bite of shame. It also can help make the tasks more manageable.
2. Normalize it. Andrea can explain that procrastination is one of the most common parts of the advising process and it actually makes a lot of sense. Procrastination often happens because you have your immediate must-do's in life and these financial tasks are not as immediately time-sensitive. It doesn't mean you are lazy, incompetent or irresponsible. Often, that's the furthest thing from the truth.
3. Use empathic questions and empathic comments to connect and learn how to help your client. Empathic questions focus on getting to know your client's particular feelings, reasons and behaviors around financial procrastination:
- What feelings come up when thinking about doing the things we've talked about today?
- What could get in your way of taking these steps?
- How do you feel about the plans we've made?
- What are your favorite procrastinating activities? You can also throw in a few of your personal favorites. And, as you know, using humor is often helpful.
Empathic comments reflect back without judgment your client's feelings so they feel understood. By validating their feelings, you're replacing potential shame or embarrassment and bringing them great relief.
- Of course, organizing financial information feels overwhelming when you have so much to do.
- I think I hear you feel irresponsible that you haven't gotten to this earlier. Totally understandable, and something I hear a lot.
- I can relate to feeling embarrassed or reticent when doing something new and foreign.
4. Find out what helps your client — uniquely. Each of us procrastinates, and also can move forward, in our own particular way. Figuring out how you can help will be invaluable to you and your client.
Here are some questions you can use:
- What are other tasks that are hard, and what helps you get to them? Paying bills, exercising, pressing work projects, making a tough phone call
- How can I partner with you to be the most help?
- Would my calling help? Texting? Emailing? Or a combination?
- When would my outreach help? Frequently, or less frequently, and share your thinking on this with me? Let's put together a plan and we will adjust as we go along. This sets up the expectation of a work-in-progress.
- How will we know if you are getting stuck and what can we do then?
- How can you help each other (if you are working with a couple)?
- Would it help if we broke the tasks down into smaller tasks, and a timetable? Some find this helpful, others overbearing; check in with your client on this.
- Let's think of what motivates you to move forward? Both long-term and short-term motivations.
Collaborating on the process gets your client to think more deeply about his/her procrastination and participate in working on it.
Procrastination can be mystifying and frustrating for both advisors and clients. When we see it less as a problem that shouldn't happen and more as one that most commonly does, we can shift our approach.
Look at procrastinating as clients signaling to advisors for help. And advisors are the ones, perhaps the only ones, who can help with this very common financial procrastination. Ultimately, procrastinating can be an opportunity, when thought about empathically and psychologically, for advisors to help clients move from struggle to progress on the most important plans and goals in their lives.
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