Procrastination is a problem for the sufferer, it’s a problem for business and it can ruin cohesive team work. It is a universal problem in businesses of all sizes and yet we rarely discuss it.
"Procrastination is the bad habit of putting off until the day after tomorrow what should have been done the day before yesterday.” Napoleon Hill
I was surprised when reading an article in Psychology Today, to find it claiming that around 20 percent of people chronically avoid putting their heads down and getting on with the job. In fact these people actively look for distractions!
This seemed a little excessive until I looked at my own behaviour and that of my immediate team. I recognised that we all occasionally put off certain actions despite our valuing efficiency, team work and timelines as much as we do. The big question is, why?
Sometimes we put off those mundane things – like reconfiguring our computer files, organising our social media, reconciling bank accounts, or updating our web site. But often we procrastinate on bigger things that require more time, more commitment, and put us at an increased risk of failing, looking foolish or feeling emotionally bruised. Things like finalising our business plan, confronting a complex new task that threatens us, or not pursuing a long held ambition.
It appears procrastinators are not born as procrastinators; rather we are trained to some extent from birth. That’s the general consensus of psychological research into the art of procrastinating. One increasingly popular theory is that procrastination has its roots in childhood, where it functioned as a means of early of rebellion against authority figures or as apathy in the presence of a strong parental pressure to perform.
Doctor Joseph Ferrari, associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, suggests that there are three types of procrastinators in the world:
The arousal types, who get a thrill from rushing through projects at the last minute, whether they come out on top or not.
The avoiders, who don’t want to get to the end of any given project because the fear of change keeps them paralysed.
The decisional procrastinators, who simply cannot make any decisive choices because they can’t bear the results of their actions.
I find it interesting that these three types of procrastinators apparently use multiple “tools” to help them procrastinate whilst still appearing to function. Understanding which type of procrastinator an employee is and recognizing which of the following methods they use to procrastinate will help us to work with them and hopefully overcome the problem.
"Procrastination is like a credit card: it's a lot of fun until you get the bill.” Christopher Parker
As with most management issues, understanding the cause is 90% of the solution and there is much we can do to help the procrastinator overcome their problem.
Let’s look at the common causes:
We don’t always have to do things exceptionally well, often “good enough” is quite enough. The ingrained desire to get everything 100% correct every time can lead to a paralysing fear of failure and multiple revisions that just waste time. A phrase which springs to mind is “analysis paralysis”.
As John Henry Newman, Anglican Deacon and author, once said, “A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault.”
Fear of Failure
Fear of failure is a major factor for some. Failure can be seen as having far-reaching implications. For some it’s how they perceive themselves and how they think they are perceived by others.
On the other hand, if this same person breaks all records, they fear all future projects will be held to a much higher standard. Some people are willing to do anything, including nothing, in order to avoid being taken out of their comfort zone.
If a project is complex, the individual steps may seem endless! Instead of seeing individual steps and taking them, the procrastinator thinks they can see all the steps that lead to completion but has no idea which one to take.
If someone is overwhelmed by targets (either the ones they've set for themselves or the ones they've been given by others), they may find themselves feeling unable to disassemble tasks into constituent components. As a result they simply don’t know where to start.
This feeling of helplessness usually feeds upon itself until it eats away at their resolve, making workplace distractions a welcome escape. This leads to a loss of focus and thus motivation.
One method of overcoming this form of procrastination is to create an action list that’s prioritised and reduces a complex project into smaller, more achievable steps.
What if someone simply can’t prioritise? Chances are they will spend hours working on non-essential tasks and fooling themselves into thinking that everything is okay.
Unlike those who get overwhelmed, those who can’t prioritise correctly don’t see anything wrong. These are the people that spend an hour deciding which font to use on the monthly report but don’t leave time to get the actual writing done.
One symptom of this type of procrastination is filling hours with “activity” rather than “action”. Often the excuse of being “flat out” is used, when really; this is just another form of procrastination.
As with the overwhelmed procrastinator the method of overcoming this form of procrastination is to create an action list that’s prioritised and reduces a complex project into smaller, more achievable steps.
Lying to Cover
Procrastinators are constantly lying to themselves. They lie to justify their failures (“Oh the System was down”). They lie to justify their successes (“Oh Fred did most of the work”). They lie to justify their justifications (“I’m sorry about the inventory debacle; it’s the warehouse, they screwed up again”).
Some procrastinators just don’t know how to not lie. Learning responsibility is the key to beating back the lies and overcoming procrastination. Help them take ownership and live up to their actions.
Lack of Motivation
Goals have to be worthwhile and achievable or managers and staff are probably going to give up on them. If the task isn’t interesting enough, intellectually satisfying enough or it’s simply dull, a procrastinator’s passion for the task is going to evaporate and they’ll find themselves looking for ways to occupy their minds. Suddenly the sun pouring in through the window becomes an irresistible magnet and they find themselves offering to head out and buy coffees for the team.
If you find this happening a lot, restructure the tasks so that they excite or add a personal reward to the end of every project. For example show real appreciation and praise if you get the monthly finance report on your desk by mid-day.
In a properly functioning and caring work environment management and or team members would ideally recognise the indications of procrastination and work together to break the cycle.
If as suggested procrastination is learned, then with help it can be unlearned. By looking out for and identifying procrastination as it’s happening, you can discreetly help by restructuring work habits, adding motivation and removing distractions.
I am convinced that a simple solution lies in planning and time management. Personally I always work from a rolling weekly task list and each day I write down the 5 things that I absolutely must do that day. This keeps me on the straight and narrow when my mind starts to wander.
Procrastination costs business a great deal in lost productivity and we should work to fix it but don’t expect overnight success. Lifelong habits are difficult to overcome and take time but the first step is always a hard yet positive move.
As Dr Ferrari says in his book “Still Procrastinating: The No Regrets Guide to Getting Things Done”:-
"Eliminating procrastination from our lives is like trying to stop a moving train; it’s not easy.”
Now please avoid moving trains and….do it quickly, don’t procrastinate!