Studies suggest your staff lose two hours of every day to procrastination. Ninety five percent of us admit to suffering the negative effects of putting off necessary tasks without a good reason. To the other five percent well done. And shame on you for lying in a perfectly useful survey. Procrastination is a monster that ravages teams, destroys deadlines, cripples productivity and makes people miserable.
There are a lot of assumptions about why we procrastinate, but the reality doesn’t usually line up. I’ve spent the week reading up on this subject, mostly to avoid doing my tax return. It turns out procrastination is more complex, more ubiquitous and frankly scarier than I could ever have guessed.
The first and most important consensus, from all the credible sources I went through, is that it’s not about laziness. When you don’t get a task started, it isn’t because you’ve suddenly lost your capacity for effort and focus. If you’re anything like me, you’ll expend more effort covering for your procrastination than you would expend on the task itself. This seems to be true of the way most people procrastinate.
It’s also not about the availability of distraction. The mountain of shiny, noisy things that are easy and fun may make it easy for you to put things off, but they are not – in themselves – the reason we procrastinate. The click bait headlines and their instant gratification are not usually a problem when our minds are fully engaged on a task. It’s when we don’t want to focus on the task in hand when we head for the web.
So why do we procrastinate and more importantly, how can we stop doing it? The reasons range from the obvious to the not-so-obvious.
The task is unpleasant
Of course this is number one. Nobody puts off eating the lobster a waiter has just put in front of them; you rarely hear of someone clearing out the garage to avoid two hours drinking a bottle of wine in the garden with their best friend. It may be that the task is boring. Maybe it has no intrinsic reward. Maybe it is difficult. Maybe it involves a risk we are not keen to face. All of these are the likely basic drivers of procrastinating.
The absence of immediate consequences
If cigarettes killed you on the spot, like a cyanide tablet – how many people would quit smoking today? The reason people put off giving up a fatal habit is because they get the pleasure now and the painful premature death later. If we can find a way to connect the future consequences of our actions with immediate consequences, it will help us stay on track. This is one of the findings of a recent study When Does the Future Begin? Time Metrics Matter, Connecting Present and Future Selves by Neil Lewis and Daphna Oyserman of USC. They proved that if people are encouraged to think of time in days (rather than weeks or months) they act with more urgency. For example, if you tell someone their child will go to college in 9 years, they may put off saving to cover it. If you tell them it is 3,285 days, they will plan on saving far earlier. So when you next have a deadline that’s a couple of months away, think of it as 59 days and see if your attitude changes. The most terrifying moment of my research was seeing a grid of my whole life laid out in weeks. There are not many boxes. Many have already been crossed out.
The absence of reward
The negative consequences of not completing a task may not be as motivating as a positive outcome. Sometimes this positive outcome is remote, or just non existent. Sometimes it’s just ‘not a negative’ and that’s not a sufficient motivation for many of us.
Assign your own reward to any task that lacks an intrinsic pay off. It really could work for you. The benefits of completing your tax return include avoiding fines and not going to prison, but those are a couple of years and a couple of audits away. How about you offer yourself a glorious steak and lobster dinner the day you close out that return? My reward for completing this piece and getting it posted is an early finish. I call it ‘final task status’. Anything awarded this status means I can go home when I finish it.
The fear of failure
When it comes to the staffing world, this manifests itself most in sales. Sales is the single most procrastinated activity in a staffing business.
Before the employers switch off here – remember there’s more than one kind of sales. You may not be responsible for commercial sales in an HR or internal recruiter role, but you have internal sales activities on a daily basis. Convincing people to implement a new process, pushing a resume to a line manager. These are sales tasks. They require you to convince someone of something and accept their positive or negative response. It’s often fear of this negative response that drives procrastination. No answer is better than a negative answer, so we stretch the waiting period. The reality, unfortunately, is that the positive answer becomes less likely as the clock ticks on. Chapter one, page one of the universal sales manual says it in calligraphy – time kills all deals.
Encourage your people to envisage positive outcomes and practice this yourself: acknowledge the times when you are indulging your anxiety: fortune telling (roll playing scenarios in your head where you get a negative response); catastrophizing (they will hate it and I’ll lose their respect, then I’ll trip on the door way and fall down the stairs.) There are many kinds of mental self-sabotage. Watch out for your staff using emotional reasoning. ‘If I feel like it’s true, then it must be true.’ This may be the entire source of the issue, the task in question may simply not be difficult or complicated; they, or you, may have been wrong about it at the outset.
As soon as you fail to pick up the phone because you’ve sold yourself on a negative result, remind yourself of the potential positives. You may score a major win, then they’ll all hold you in the air and carry you round the room like the end of the Karate Kid. Why not? It’s no more ridiculous than the negative outcome you pictured. And by acting, you increase the chance of a positive result.
Lying to yourself
‘I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow,’ or ‘I work better under pressure.’ These are devices we use to support our failure to act now. They are without any validity. Of course you won’t feel like doing it tomorrow. As for performing better under pressure, that’s just a euphemism, for – ‘I do things once I have no choice but to do them.’ There’s no way that positively affects quality – quite the opposite. Accept what you’re doing. Even if it still leaves you the hard task of finding a way to begin, at least you’re not deceiving yourself.
The dangers of procrastination
There’s a groundswell of opinion on social media that there’s no such thing as procrastination. ‘You either believe in what you’re doing or you don’t.’ If you don’t there’s no point plugging away, you have to believe in it. This is the kind of nonsense only the internet could deliver. The idea that you don’t have to face things that offer no emotional benefit to you is infantile. You can’t believe in the spreadsheet you need to create. It’s a spreadsheet. And you still have to create it, or you’re fired. Don’t get sucked into the ‘motivational poster’ approach to problems. You can’t stare at a picture of a mountain goat with the word ‘accomplishment’ on it in a nice font and inspire yourself out of your problem.
The cost of procrastination is considerable. It’s not just the impact on immediate professional productivity. Tasks that hover over us, with all the fear and doubt associated, are terrible for our overall well-being. The negative emotions only grow as the task becomes more urgent, affecting sleep patterns, our ability to relax and even the amount we drink. If you can help someone reverse a trend of procrastination, or even give them a respite from it, you’ll be making a major contribution to their quality of life.
You may also get that report you’ve been waiting for.
To really get to the heart of the issue, you need to hear from some real psychologists. These things are above my pay grade, but the seminal work is Aaron Beck’s Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders 
I always plug David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which was a revelation to me several years ago.
There is also an interesting TED Talk from Tim Urban: https://www.ted.com/talks/tim_urban_inside_the_mind_of_a_master_procrastinator
Arnold Rimmer from Red Dwarf’s explanation of how he timetabled study and then didn’t have time to study: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5mqbKs1PoI