How to overcome procrastination at work

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It’s ten to five on a Friday afternoon, and here we are again – hastily finishing those last few tasks before the weekend, while furiously muttering that you won’t leave things so late next time. Once again, you are wondering how to overcome procrastination which is like a fire blanket smothering your ability to perform.

In this article, we take a deep dive into the murky waters of procrastination to better understand:

  • What procrastination is
  • Why people procrastinate
  • How to deal with procrastination
  • How to avoid procrastination before it happens

So, here goes – let’s discuss the origins of our procrastinating ways.

What is procrastination?

Procrastination, derived from the Latin word “procrastinare,” which means ‘to put off till tomorrow,’ is the act of delaying or postponing tasks that one should be focusing on right now. It’s not merely the act of being lazy; it’s a complex psychological behaviour that affects everyone to some degree or another.

The essence of procrastination is the gap between intention and action – knowing you should do something, yet not doing it.

The Theory of Procrastination

The theory of procrastination is not a recent phenomenon. Ancient philosophers like Socrates and Aristotle recognised it and termed it “akrasia,” which refers to the state of acting against one’s better judgment.

It’s the feeling of “I know I should be doing this, but I just can’t seem to get myself to do it.” Thus, the struggle with procrastination has been with us for millennia and has been a topic of study and introspection for just as long.

Procrastinating: An Example

Imagine this typical scenario at the workplace:

It’s Monday, and you have a report due by Friday. You think to yourself, “I have plenty of time,” and prioritise other seemingly urgent tasks or even non-essential ones like organising your desk or checking social media.

As the days pass, the pressure to start your report builds up, but so does the resistance. By Thursday evening, panic sets in. Now, with only a few hours left, you rush through the report, sacrificing quality and thoroughness, wishing you had started earlier.

This cycle of delay, anxiety, and hurried completion is a pattern many of us have experienced in various forms throughout our professional lives.

Such behaviour not only affects our work quality and stress levels but also impacts our self-esteem and overall satisfaction with life. Now that we understand the fundamental nature of procrastination, the real question arises: Why do we allow ourselves to fall into this trap?

Let’s delve deeper into the psychology behind our tendency to delay in the next section: ‘Why do we procrastinate?’

Why do we procrastinate?

It’s a question many have asked, hoping to unravel the mystery of this self-defeating behaviour.

Procrastination isn’t a sign of a flawed character or a lack of willpower; it’s a complex interplay of psychological factors, emotional triggers, and even our evolutionary wiring.

Here are some primary reasons why even the best of us sometimes fall into the procrastination pit:

  1. The Brain’s Battle: Our brain is designed with two main systems – the limbic system, which is responsible for immediate gratification, and the prefrontal cortex, the logical part that helps us plan and think about the future.

    Often, the limbic system, being more dominant, overpowers the rational prefrontal cortex, causing us to seek immediate pleasures (like watching a funny video) over long-term benefits (like completing a task).

  2. Fear of Failure: Many of us procrastinate because we’re afraid of not succeeding. This fear stems from a deep-rooted desire for perfection or from past experiences where failure had significant consequences. By delaying or avoiding the task, we also delay the potential for failure or criticism.
  3. Overwhelm and Task Aversion: Sometimes the sheer size or complexity of a task can be daunting. If a task appears too big or too vague, our natural reaction might be to avoid it. Breaking tasks into manageable chunks can help, but if we don’t do that, procrastination often sets in.
  4. Lack of Motivation or Value: If a task doesn’t seem meaningful, the reward seems too distant or the pain feeding your need to change is not great enough, it’s easy to postpone it. We think, “Why bother now?” This is especially true for tasks that don’t have immediate tangible outcomes. In short, your procrastinating may be fed by a lack of motivation to change the status quo.
  5. Decisional Procrastination: At times, procrastination occurs when we’re unable to make a decision. Instead of taking a step in any direction, we remain frozen, hoping that the clarity will come with time.
  6. Impaired Self-Control: Just as a muscle gets tired from overuse, our self-control can deplete when it’s exercised too much without breaks. This is why, after a long day of making decisions and focusing, you might find it hard to resist the lure of mindless social media scrolling or aimless internet browsing.

Understanding these reasons doesn’t necessarily make overcoming procrastination any easier, but it does shed light on why we behave the way we do. More importantly, it reminds us that procrastination isn’t a personal failure but a universal challenge.

Recognising the root causes of our procrastination is the first step towards managing it effectively. Now that we’ve delved into the ‘why,’ the next section will guide you through actionable strategies on ‘How to deal with procrastination.’ Let’s explore the tools and tactics to break the cycle and enhance productivity.

What problems can procrastination create?

Procrastination, while often brushed off as a mere quirk of behaviour or even glamorised as the sign of a “creative mind,” can have profound consequences on your work, personal life, and mental well-being.

Let’s explore some of the primary challenges it poses:

  1. Poor Work Quality

    Invariably, when you push tasks to the last minute, there’s insufficient to do your best work. This rush compromises the quality of the end result, leading to outputs that don’t reflect your true capabilities.

  2. Increased Stress and Anxiety

    The weight of pending tasks can hang over us like a dark cloud. As deadlines approach, the anxiety of not having started or progressed enough can become overwhelming, leading to heightened stress levels and even panic.

    This often creates a vicious cycle of missed deadlines, increased anxiety, and declining mental health.

  3. Diminished Self-Trust and Self-Esteem

    Regularly breaking promises to ourselves by delaying tasks erodes our self-trust. Over time, this can affect our self-esteem, making us doubt our capabilities and worth.

  4. Strained Relationships

    Procrastination isn’t just a personal affair. Missed deadlines or commitments can affect teammates, partners, or family members who were counting on us. This can lead to resentment, distrust, and strain in relationships.

  5. Lost Opportunities

    Opportunities often come with an expiration date. By delaying decisions or actions, we might miss out on beneficial opportunities, be it in our careers, investments, or personal growth.

  6. Health Implications

    Chronic procrastination can lead to persistently elevated stress levels, which are linked to a range of health issues, including sleep disturbances, digestive problems, and even cardiovascular diseases.

  7. Decreased Learning and Growth

    By constantly deferring tasks, especially the challenging ones, we deny ourselves the opportunity to learn and grow. This stunts our professional and personal development.

  8. Compromised Well-being

    The consistent cycle of delay and hurried catch-up can leave little time for self-care, hobbies, or relaxation. This imbalance can lead to burnout, fatigue, and a general decrease in life satisfaction.

In essence, while procrastination might offer a temporary escape from a task’s perceived discomfort, the long-term repercussions can be severe and far-reaching.

With a deeper comprehension of these pitfalls, it becomes even more critical to arm ourselves with strategies to combat and overcome procrastination.

In the next section, let’s take a look at the actionable solutions you can take to deal with procrastination and reclaim control over your time and life.

How to Stop Procrastinating

Overcoming procrastination is more than just willpower; it’s a blend of understanding, strategy, and action. Let’s break down the steps and strategies to counter this pervasive habit for both individuals and teams.

How do I stop procrastinating?

There are many ways in which you can tackle your procrastination, but the key is to tackle the right problem. Here are some tips and techniques to give a try:

  • Prioritise & Break Down Tasks: For overwhelming tasks, break them down into smaller, manageable bits. Use the Eisenhower Box or the ABCD priority system to decide what’s urgent and important.
  • Use The Two-Minute Rule: Do you have an evergrowing inbox, with a list of tasks you need to get done before archiving the e-mails? To fix this use the rule that if a task takes two minutes or less, do it immediately. This principle, popularised by productivity guru David Allen, helps clear small tasks that might otherwise pile up.
  • Use Time Management Techniques: Time management techniques like the Pomodoro Technique, Time Blocking, or the 1-3-5 rule can be instrumental. They help structure your work sessions, provide regular breaks, and maintain focus. 
  • Limit Distractions: Use apps to tackle your distractions, increase your concentration and hone your focus. Some apps I like include Forest, Cold Turkey Blocker, and Focus.
  • Visualise the End Result: Thinking about the satisfaction or benefits you’ll gain from completing a task can act as a potent motivator. Do this and you’ll tap into the inherent human desire for reward and achievement.
  • Commit Publicly: Share your goals with friends or on social media. The added pressure of public commitment can be a motivator.
  • Reframe Tasks: Instead of viewing tasks as burdens, view them as opportunities to learn and grow. This shift in perspective can reduce the aversion associated with the task.
  • Set Clear Deadlines: Even if one doesn’t exist, create one. It creates a sense of urgency.
  • Reward Yourself: Set up a reward system for when you complete tasks or remain consistent in your work habits. Don’t overcomplicate things – a nice forthy coffee will do the job!

How can I stop my team/employees from procrastinating?

Ever felt like herding cats might be easier than getting your team to meet a deadline without the eleventh-hour scramble? You’re not alone in your need to help your team overcome procrastination.

But don’t despair! With the right strategies, team members can be steered back on track. Let’s dive into some ways to develop and support your procrastinators to become your high performers:

  • Be a Clear Communicator for Your People: Ensure that the team understands the objectives, their roles, and the bigger picture. When people see the purpose behind tasks, they are more motivated to complete them.
  • Provide the Right Tools and Resources: Equip your team with time management and productivity tools. This could range from project management software like Trello or distraction blockers. You also need to give them the resources to do their jobs; don’t give any excuses for holding back and leaving a job for tomorrow.
  • Regular Check-ins: Instead of micromanaging your employees have regular brief check-ins. This maintains accountability and provides a platform for addressing concerns or roadblocks.
  • Encourage Breaks: Small breaks can increase overall productivity. Ensure your team isn’t overworking and is taking time to refresh.
  • Recognise and Reward: Acknowledging efforts and results can boost morale and motivation. A system of rewards, or even simple recognition, can go a long way.
  • Provide Training: If procrastination is a persistent issue, consider workshops or training sessions on time management, task prioritisation, or other relevant skills.
  • Create a Collaborative Environment: Encourage team members to collaborate and help each other out. Sometimes, discussing a task with a colleague can provide clarity or a new perspective.
  • Set Realistic Expectations: Ensure that the tasks and deadlines set for the team are realistic. Overburdening can lead to burnout and increased procrastination.
  • Feedback Loops: Have a system in place where employees can provide you with feedback. Sometimes, the root of procrastination might be external factors like unclear instructions, lack of resources, or personal issues. Be that leader who people can be open with.

By addressing procrastination head-on, both at an individual and team level, you can pave the way for enhanced productivity, reduced stress, and a more fulfilling work experience.

As with any behavioural change, consistency is key, so starting small and building on these habits over time can yield substantial long-term benefits.

Training Courses to Help You (or Your Team) Overcome Procrastination

Here are some courses we think might help you or your employees overcome procrastination at work.

  • Emotional Intelligence – Uncover the 5 domains of EQ and take control of the emotions that may be driving your procrastination.
  • Time Management – Take control of your time and make procrastination a thing of the past.
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Matthew Channell
Matthew is TSW Training’s Commercial Director. He writes about performance focussed learning, leadership, and management approaches that have real-world, sustainable impact.
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