Everyone is affected by procrastination in some form or another. But why does it happen? It can’t be just a product of laziness, because adept procrastinators may become the hardest workers of all in the hours leading up to a deadline. What, then, can explain a process that is so irredeemably unpleasant and inconvenient for all involved?
In truth, procrastination is a complex behavior with many possible causes, which include but are not limited to laziness, external stress, overwhelmedness, lack of motivation or discipline, poor time management techniques, lack of skill, and perfectionism.
Above all, though, it is an unhealthy habit, and like any bad habit, it can be overcome with a great degree of permanence given the right push. Fortunately for your business, it happens to be very easy to provide this push institutionally.
Strategies for overcoming procrastination at the personal level
Nobody wants to procrastinate, so you may as well start by trying to address the problem directly as a whole. There exists a plethora of different strategies for conquering this habit that individuals have found effective, and you would do well to encourage these where you can. Such time-management techniques can be instrumental in changing the way a person does work, but the downside is that you generally can’t force employees to use them. Some of the more salient points to consider promoting in your workplace are as follows:
- Start with it. Dedicate the first 30 or so minutes of work time to doing that work without any distraction or interruption, even from work-related tasks. If you can manage to fulfill this obligation before turning to minor tasks like checking email, you will probably find it much easier to continue because you have gotten into the groove of it.
- Make a date. Expand the starting process to encompass larger, concretely defined work sessions. Instead of setting vague goals that you can push back without a thought, start scheduling important tasks for non-negotiable windows of time that you must show up for, just like when you agree to meet a person.
- Be more self-aware. Try to become cognizant of your procrastination process, which may involve either difficulty in starting a task or difficulty in staying focused on a task. Either way, you become locked in a familiar pattern of rationalization, starting with the stress of needing to start and ending in the temporary relief of that stress which reinforces the behavior and makes it easier to fall prey to procrastination again. Once you learn to acknowledge it for what it is, the urge to “take a quick break” should pass.
- Eliminate distractions. Willpower is a limited resource, and it can be depleted like any other form of energy. Resisting temptation takes effort that makes you more susceptible to procrastinating later in the day. Solve this by eliminating anything that might tempt you, blocking problematic websites and imposing other restrictions on yourself to ensure that accessing these diversions takes effort too. Your office may be able to help with some of this. Save distractions to use as rewards outside of work so that you can give yourself a real break.
- Be satisfied with imperfection. Learn to let go of perfectionistic tendencies that render a task more difficult than it needs to be. If a project is so intimidating that you don’t want to begin, start it anyway and write whatever first comes to mind. Imagine that it’s a rough draft, and remember that any work accomplished is better than no work at all. You have more energy than you think.
- Change the way you think about doing work. If you can’t be effective using your current process, then maybe it’s time to try something different. Alter your thought process. Change your method of organizing tasks, or learn to prioritize through systems such as Eisenhower’s Urgent/Important Principle. Keep taking risks until something works.
At the organizational level
Often a behavior requires more than mere encouragement to be properly corrected, so it is rather fortunate that many of the common fixes for procrastination can be enforced through the system. While many of these strategies may also be applied as personal principles, it is notable that they provide your company’s management with a number of options, which may be decided upon through trial and error according to their necessity and effectiveness. Specific measures that might be taken within your organization include the following:
- Change the way tasks are assigned. This might be done in any number of ways, for instance structuring tasks with more minor deadlines and check-ins to give procrastination less opportunity to strike. What is important here is that the addition of structure in almost any form can be a powerful control on procrastinatory tendencies. In this way, you may supply employees with work in more manageable segments that help them to prioritize and prevent any task from seeming larger than life. Concrete, short-term rewards provide motivation, while failure to persist is caused by a failure to see the link between efforts and their benefit. In the interest of maximum efficiency, you might also try to play to the strengths of your employees and to make them feel that their role is significant by assigning tasks of varying importance.
- Reward performance. Offer bonuses or other, smaller incentives to employees who finish work ahead of time. Make it a real competition, remembering that procrastination is ultimately about motivation. Reminders and prizes have been shown to improve satisfaction and stress levels among workers while at the same time increasing their output and achievement. Similarly, you may find creative ways to punish procrastinatory behavior, however you may choose to define and recognize it.
- Hold employees accountable. A good way to do this is to pair employees up to work on important projects, which will make them feel obligated to do the job faster. Putting one person in charge of a task with little outside influence is not typically a recipe for effectiveness. If it comes down to it, you might consider including the entire team on certain assignments, as open collaboration will foster responsibility. Another way to encourage accountability is to hold a meeting each morning with the entire team, and to ask the potential procrastinators on the spot about their progress.
- Make the message clear. Employees might not know the extent to which they can slow a project down, so be as frank as possible in discussing the issue of procrastination and what it does—use hard numbers to communicate the problems it is causing. Make it consistently clear that this is a matter you value addressing, that employees are promoted because of their ability to work faster, and that procrastination will not be tolerated. You might have a lot of options and freedom, but by supplying employees with just the right combination of internal and external pushes, you can fairly easily produce the conditions for motivation that lead to unprompted persistent success in the workplace. In theory, all it should take to tip the balance between effort and benefit is a single application of pressure.
Teach employees what you want
Anytime you are looking to make a change in behavior or a culture change, it's important to provide easy access to supporting resources. In addition to clearly explaining your expectations to employees, show them how to meet your expectations through training. People learn best through experience, so make sure that the training resources and other support systems are readily available at the time when they need them most. Much of this training support can be provided online, through virtual channels. To learn more about different approaches to virtual training, we invite you to download our complimentary eBook: Choosing a Virtual-Training Method That Meets Your Needs.