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Leadership

How to overcome procrastination in the workplace

Andrew Wallbridge - Last Update: 18 Nov 2021

Contents

What is procrastinating?

Why do we procrastinate?

What problems can procrastination create?

How can leaders and managers encourage their team to stop procrastinating?

 

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Andrew Wallbridge

What is procrastinating?

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 week.

Procrastination is unnecessarily putting something off. Most people do it, so it's important to understand why and the problems it causes so that we can overcome it.

Why do we procrastinate?

Procrastination is a normal phenomenon - it's in our genes, linked to impulsiveness.

According to Temporal Motivation Theory (TMT), we procrastinate because of four main motivations: expectancy, value, time, and impulsivity

Temporal Motivation Theory Equation

Expectancy

If your employees expect a task to be unpleasant or boring, then it's no surprise that they'll prioritise other tasks that appeal to them

For example, team leader Pierre is putting off taking his management course because he doesn't expect to do well. So, he gets on with other tasks and plans to quickly revise the day before. At least that way if he fails, it'll be because he didn't study properly, not because he wasn't capable.

Value

Employees that don't value a task or outcome won't be motivated to do it and will procrastinate to avoid it.

Say your company's receptionist, Sam, is avoiding organising their emails because they see no value in doing so. Sam is motivated by recognition and an annual bonus. A tidy inbox is unlikely to earn them either of those things.

Time

TMT looks at time and suggests that the sooner the deadline of a task, the more people value it.

If a work deadline is a long way in the future, your staff might think they have plenty of time, and put it to the bottom of their to-do list.

As an example, Pierre asks marketer Charlotte to create a social media campaign for the company's new decorating service. As the deadline is weeks away, Charlotte isn't motivated by a time pressure, so she decides to start it next week.

Impulsivity

Staff members that are impulsive will be more easily distracted and likely to make spontaneous decisions that lead to procrastination.

Pierre's employee, Adil, knows that his financial training needs completing, and he has multiple POs to raise. But, motivated by the promise of a more enjoyable task, he volunteers to organise the celebration and gifts for Charlotte's work anniversary.

What problems can procrastination create?

If an employee procrastinates, they might find that completing the task they've been avoiding takes longer than they originally planned for, which might delay the delivery. This could have a knock-on effect for anyone that's waiting on them.

Leaving something until the last minute means it's likely it'll be rushed. Important information or steps could be overlooked which could have an impact later.

On a more personal note, procrastinating also doesn't feel good long-term. If one of your team members must rush to finish a task or they cause a delay in production, they'll probably feel guilty and that they haven't done as good a job as they could've if they'd given it more time and effort.

So even though the task is complete, they don't feel fulfilled which can affect their motivation for the next task.

How can leaders and managers encourage their team to stop procrastinating?

How to best help your employees stop procrastinating will depend on why they are doing it in the first place.

In a one-to-one, have an open discussion about procrastination and try to help your employee understand why they do it, and how they can overcome it. You could use Herzberg's Two Factor Theory to address what your employee is satisfied and dissatisfied with.

There might be an underlying cause of an employee's procrastination, such as stress, depression, or anxiety. In this case, additional support might be needed from a professional.

Expectancy

If you notice an employee gets overwhelmed by expectations and anxious about the outcome of a project, it might be more manageable for them to break it down into smaller tasks.

For example, Pierre could split his management course down by module, and focus on getting through one at a time. He could draw up a plan to schedule in some time for revision. Or buddy up with someone on the same course and hold each other accountable for sticking to their plans.

Improving self-confidence will make staff more motivated to succeed. And now Pierre's not worrying so much about his own procrastination, he'll be able to help his team with theirs.

You could use Vroom’s Expectancy Theory to assess whether your employees know what to do to get the desired outcome.

Value

For employees that struggle to see certain tasks as rewarding, breaking the task down and getting rewarded along the way could help.

While it's true that Sam organising their emails might not directly lead to a bonus, it could help them work more efficiently which is something Pierre praises them for. Sam could even treat themselves to getting that new jumper they've wanted.

Also, a tidy inbox could make hitting their objectives easier, meaning they're more likely to get their bonus.

Again, Vroom’s Expectancy Theory could come in handy here, for understanding what your employees value.

vrooms expectancy theory diagram

Time

Notice an employee is more productive in the afternoons? Or do they struggle to find work rewarding unless there's a time pressure? In this case, make sure they schedule difficult tasks for when they're most productive and get them to remind themselves of why this task is worth their focus.

Charlotte's manager could encourage her to schedule in a little bit of work on the new social media campaign each morning when she's most productive.

Leaders can use tools like the two (or five) minute rule to help employees that struggle with motivation by condensing any task into a two-minute version. So "I will finish filling in this spreadsheet" becomes "I will fill in two rows of this spreadsheet".

You can encourage your employees to schedule procrastination into their plans, so at least it's accounted for when working out timings. The Eisenhower Matrix could also help your employees manage their time.

Eisenhower Matrix TSW Training

Impulsivity

Some employees can be more easily distracted. Leaders could help them optimise their environment to minimise any disruption and delegate tasks if you find they're taking on too much in one go.

Adil loves to help other people, but his impulsiveness can lead to him veering off course by putting off important tasks to assist others.

As Adil's manager, Pierre could suggest that each team member be responsible for one part of Charlotte's anniversary planning, so they each have time to focus on other things.

It's important to remind your employees to be kind to themselves and practice self-forgiveness. After all, how can you motivate your employee if they're feeling guilty about procrastinating?

Occasionally your employees may be simply finding it hard to get on with anything, so it's worth reassuring them that it's okay to take a break and step away from work.

Even if they're on a tight deadline, they can still take a short break - they'll probably be even more productive afterwards.

When working with your employees to help them stop procrastinating, make sure they don't end up using this research and planning as an excuse to procrastinate - wouldn't that be ironic!