The Psychology of Procrastination and How to Stop It - EmployeeConnect HRIS
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The Psychology of Procrastination and How to Stop It

Everyone procrastinates occasionally, but in today’s fast-moving business environment, procrastination can generate serious consequences. Regardless of whether you manage, supervise or work as a team member, procrastination can affect other people’s performances and compromise their efficiency and ability to do their jobs.

What Is Procrastination?

People have always put off certain tasks due to a degree of difficulty, inertia, undesirability or because other tasks are more appealing. The act of postponing tasks is as old and as universal as any habit. Of course, catching up on Netflix or mowing the lawn is kind of expected when faced with an editorial deadline, but in business, hidden kinds of procrastination can cost companies serious money and generate inefficiencies of scale. One study found that average workers admit to wasting 2.09 hours each day.

Priority Dilution

Another big problem for companies is that many employees delay working on the most important projects because they take longer or come with bigger consequences.  Employees put off their most important tasks, which costs their employers money and can damage any company’s reputation for efficiency. Each kind of delay can damage a company, lower performance efficiency and generate unintended expenses and consequences, so it’s critical to develop policies that address minimising the tendency to procrastinate.

The Science of Procrastination

About 20 percent of the global population admits to being procrastinators, and this shortcoming can result in paying bills late, missing important family activities and not filing documents in timely ways. In business, procrastinating may lead to lost opportunities, higher costs, reduced efficiency and improper preparation that prevents others from doing their work.

There are different types of procrastinators. Some have trouble starting while others have difficulty finishing. Researchers have discovered that many people who procrastinate have impulsive tendencies. These people are easily distracted by social media, office gossip, shopping, novel entertainment options and other outside stimuli.

The prefrontal cortex functions as the governor for processing information and making decisions. Deciding to procrastinate gives the brain a temporary burst of dopamine, which is the feel-good chemical. Unfortunately, the ultimate result of procrastinating is that people feel like a drug addict and develop feelings of anxiety, panic, exhaustion and inadequacy when they fail to complete appointed tasks. Lack of self-control is common among people with high impulsivity and low self-discipline. Procrastinating provides a quick ‘fix’ with a shot of dopamine, but the long-term consequences mirror those of addiction.

The Procrastination-Action Line

Long-term consequences and nebulous rewards aren’t good motivators in preventing procrastination. You – as an employee, manager or executive – need to find ways to prevent your procrastination episodes and encourage others to complete their work in a timely fashion. You can chart the procrastination-action line on a graph, and you’ll find that the pain of doing any job decreases the further that you progress. That’s why encouraging workers to get started is so successful in fostering work completion. This action line is vulnerable to artificial inducements such as rewarding yourself for starting projects and providing immediate incentives for not procrastinating.

How to Stop Procrastination Immediately

Resisting the appeal of instant gratification is a key characteristic of successful people and those who succeed in their business tasks. However, procrastination is an easy choice when work seems overwhelming. Socrates and Aristotle coined the term ‘akrasia’ to describe this kind of procrastinating behaviour, which involves working against your best interests.  Akrasia – despite its temporary appeal – inevitably generates time inconsistencies, financial consequences, and poorer performances while compromising your future effort. That’s why it’s so important for employees, managers and C-suite executives to address how to stop procrastination. The following steps could help to prevent or reduce episodes of procrastination when performing both personal and business tasks:

Break Activities into Smaller Steps

It’s a simple but effective method: Break large projects into smaller steps to facilitate completing the work. It’s easier to get motivated to complete several smaller steps than to face one major project that might take days to complete.

Make Your Work More Achievable

Breaking down activities into smaller steps makes completing them easier, and there are other methods that will make achieving your goals easier. For example, you can set a schedule for the following day to help maximise every hour and prioritise your work. Mark Twain once said, ‘Eat a live frog first thing every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.’ In business terms, that means you should work on the most challenging tasks first while you’re fresh, rested and motivated. Keep your meetings and appointments as scheduled so that you don’t get behind.

Generate Immediate Incentives for Completing Tasks

You can arrange your work so that you receive praise, rewards and other incentives for promptly completing tasks. These incentives might include going out for lunch with friends, leaving work early once your work is done or fulfilling promises to your manager, co-workers or supervisor. You can also share your plans and work goals with friends and family members, and keeping your promises to them can be a strong performance incentive. Another method of rewarding yourself for completing tasks involves bundling tasks – doing the things that you love to do only when working on less appealing projects where you’d prefer to procrastinate.

Make the Consequences of Procrastinating More Immediate

Although deadlines loom, most people waste time checking social media, viewing videos online and checking sports scores. However, recent studies show that putting off tasks can result in stress, hypertension and increased instances of cardiovascular disease. However, most people respond better to more immediate consequences. If you want to reduce procrastinating, try to generate immediate negative consequences for procrastinating.

These might include not going to a social event, skipping lunch or dinner, eating crow with business associates or disappointing your team manager. Immediate real-world consequences can provide powerful reasons to complete your work promptly. Strategies for success include setting public deadlines for completing your work, making friendly bets with associates and performing some challenging physical activity if you fail to complete your work.

Design Your Future Actions

The more you plan your work in detail, the better your chances of completing your tasks on time. A clear timeline can prevent procrastination and create a sense of urgency for completing tasks. It might help to change your environment, redesign your workspace or make other environmental changes. When designing your future actions, try to eliminate those common activities that take up your time. These might include automated alerts and notifications, browser bookmarks and other time-consuming activities.

Eliminate Distractions

There are probably tasks that you enjoy doing, but you should withhold doing them until you complete the less agreeable tasks you have to do. Shut off automated notifications, disable your phone’s ringer and shut your office door. If practical, put a ‘do not disturb’ sign on your door. Learn to say no to your friends and colleagues when they ask you to do some trivial task even if it won’t take much time. Don’t get bogged down with cleaning your office, making coffee and doing other mechanical chores.

Share Your Goals

Sharing your work goals with others can be a strong motivator for completing your work. Pre-committing to success is the opposite of typical corporate CYA behaviour, and sharing your goals can motivate you to better work performance.

How to Stop Procrastination by Using Fear

Fear is a powerful motivator, so you should consider the potential negative consequences of procrastinating. These might include disciplinary actions, poor performance reviews and failure to advance your career or get promoted. If you work for a company that typically lays off workers, then the prospect of getting laid off can be an immediate real-world motivator to complete your work quickly and efficiently.

Kicking Procrastination by Being Consistent

Consistency can prevent procrastination by establishing a pattern of behaviour. It’s easier to follow an established pattern than going against it. It’s hard to procrastinate when doing so changes your daily routine and introduces uncertainty into your workplace behaviour.

Following a Daily Routine to Foster Peak Productivity

In 1918, Charles Schwab hired productivity consultant Ivy Lee to increase the efficiency of his employees. The Ivy Lee Method favours following a daily routine to increase efficiency and foster faster completion of routine work tasks. The Ivy Lee approach included the following steps for leveraging peak performances:

  • Each evening, you should write down the six most important things you need to accomplish on the following day.
  • Prioritize the items.
  • Work on the items in order, and concentrate only on the current task.
  • Approach each goal with the same commitment.
  • Repeat the process each day.

The method worked (and continues to do so) because it institutionalised maintaining consistent behaviour and following a daily routine. Following good work habits and a daily routine can prevent procrastination and foster better work habits.

How to Stop Procrastination with Visual Cues

Visual cues can motivate you to complete your tasks faster. A visual stimulus might include a spreadsheet, calendar, sales chart, check-off list or performance board that measures workplace efficiency, consistency and progress. Visual cues generate positive reinforcement, and they can be used for individual efforts, team tracking and monitoring each company project’s status. The more visible and accessible these cues are, the more likely they will inspire enhanced performances.

The human brain is wired for immediate gratification, so it takes real effort to fight the tendency to procrastinate. The consequences of procrastination seldom fade away, so you’ll eventually need to deal with anything you put off doing. The best strategy in business is to delay instant gratification to receive larger rewards based on your enhanced performance capabilities. The limbic system understands that you shouldn’t put your hand on a hot burner, but it doesn’t appreciate the wider benefits of doing your work promptly and completing the most important tasks first. That’s why you need to game the system.

You can trick your system by adopting new standards of how to stop procrastination. Reward yourself for completing your work, learn to prioritise projects and develop strategic skills for planning your work and working your plan.

Ari Kopoulos

CEO at EmployeeConnect