5th July 2021
Procrastination doesn’t make you a terrible person.
Does this make you exhale a small sigh of relief?
You’re not alone. We commonly (mistakenly) assume procrastination is a personal weakness and a clear sign of laziness and lack of grit.
In reality, the procrastination bug comes to bite most of us. We’ve all had those days where we just can’t find the motivation to get going, even when we know we should. Suddenly, a whole range of different activities become more inviting (Going down YouTube rabbit holes, cleaning your home, or even scrolling through LinkedIn). Anything besides getting started!
In the office, especially with respect to health and safety, procrastinating can be a dangerous mental spiral. If workers put off tasks too often, they risk rushing the task to meet deadlines or team goals - and potentially increase the risk to their health and safety as a result (notably for workers in physical, hands-on workplaces). Procrastination itself may also be a warning sign of mental burnout. As a manager, learning about procrastination will help you better understand and care for your team. As a worker, knowing why you behave in a certain way can help you make necessary adjustments to procrastinate less.
What actually is procrastination?
Procrastination is the act of unnecessarily delaying or postponing the completion of a task - while being aware that you need to get it done (alongside the mourning frustration that you just can’t get started).
Being aware of our own procrastination - feeling that unshakeable, uncomfortable itch that we should be doing something else - is what makes it feel even worse when we start to procrastinate. Knowing that we’re doing it, and being unable to stop ourselves, is what feeds the collective belief that procrastination is just laziness at play.
In reality, procrastination boils down to a lot more than laziness with other psychological processes at play. Dismissing it as laziness won’t help to fix chronic procrastinators, and only continues the vicious cycle - not getting started, feeling guilty, doubting self, and feeling helpless.
So, why do we do it?
There are three broad reasons why we procrastinate.
Perfectionism and a fear of failure:
Perfectionists fear not completing a task perfectly (surprise); causing them to put off tasks. Instead of accepting that the first draft or attempt might not be perfect, perfectionists are paralysed by the fear of failure.
For a perfectionist, the idea of failure threatens their identity - of always being ‘good’ at everything they attempt and produce. If a perfectionist builds a sense of self-esteem on the basis of being good at everything, or always producing perfect work, they’ll inevitably become crushed when something doesn’t work out. As is often the case with life, failure and mistakes are inevitable. Perfectionism is both unrealistic and unhelpful and can keep you stuck in the same place for too long.
If this sounds familiar, try building your identity around being a learner, or someone who enjoys trying things and attempting things differently. This way, you work failure into your mental framework and make peace with mistakes. When you perceive yourself as someone who values learning and giving things a go, you’ll find the simple act of starting a task easier - and less threatening to your identity.
This common cognitive bias, pertaining to the field of behavioural psychology, explains how we often find it difficult to connect our present self to our future self. When we make decisions, we often prioritise what feels good now, over what feels good for us in the long run, even if the short-term reward is significantly less impactful for us.
Why would we engage in this self-destructive behaviour? Psychologists have related the present bias to an emotional regulation mechanism failure. We put off future-related big tasks to avoid the potential negative emotions associated with getting started. These include stress, anxiety, boredom, panic and so on. Rather than confronting the task, we prefer to indulge in immediate feel-good emotions. We fear the fear itself, so to speak, that comes from beginning something. Oftentimes our impression of the negative emotion - our anticipation of feeling bad - is much worse than experiencing the negative emotion itself.
Physical or Mental Exhaustion:
One of the other reasons we tend to procrastinate often comes down to plain old physical exhaustion and/or mental fatigue. If you’re nearing burnout or you're experiencing high volumes of stress at work, sometimes the thought of beginning yet another task simply feels like too much.
In this case, it’s often useful to take a step back, try to get some rest, so that you can approach your work with renewed clarity.
Similarly, undiagnosed mental health problems can be an issue for procrastination. An inability to find the motivation to simply get started on a task can be an indicator of depressive symptoms, while experiencing unusual stress or worry about the task itself may be anxiety. If you’re worried about your mental health, have a look at the warning signs. Likewise, look out for your employees by implementing an EAP service in your workplace as a confidential port-of-call for employees to have a chat to someone if need be.
That’s all very well - what can we do about it?
Try starting with some self-compassion:
It may sound cheesy, or reminiscent of the 80s self-esteem movement that has possibly contributed negatively to our culture, but in reality, self-compassion is the key to beating procrastination.
If we always perceive procrastination as a sign of laziness or a weak character, we’ll always be unnecessarily harsh on ourselves trying to fix it. In reality, procrastination usually occurs for reasons beyond laziness as mentioned above.
- Too much self-criticism, using that as motivation to force yourself into beginning a task is the most ineffective way you can actually motivate yourself. Time and time again, behavioural psychology researchers have found that punishment is the least effective motivator, over reward, or intrinsic motivation.
- Instead of punishing yourself, try being kinder to yourself - even if you’ve not achieved much.
Next time you hear the painful drone of that nagging voice inside your head, reprimanding you for wilfully ignoring your duties, try to be kinder to yourself instead, and use encouraging self-talk to get going. Talking down to yourself only creates more negative emotions, which feedback into the cycle of present bias - which lengthens your procrastination altogether.
Find the easiest starting point:
Try the ‘Do-Something’ principle. Popularised by best-selling author Mark Manson, this principle describes how the act of doing the simplest, easiest part of your task will motivate you to continue. Action inspires motivation - once you get started, you’ll build momentum to continue. Break your task down into the smallest components, and decide which would be the easiest to complete - even if it’s opening up a Word document, writing up a title and a date! By getting started, you overcome the anticipation of the task.
Recognise when you need a break:
If it’s physical or mental exhaustion that’s plaguing you, look at the bigger picture and find a way to take some time out for yourself. If it means saying ‘no’, on the weekend to socialising so you have enough time to recharge, or perhaps making an effort to switch off Netflix half an hour earlier at night so you get adequate rest, find small ways to focus on recharging and energising.
If you’re a manager and you notice an employee looking particularly haggard and gaunt, help them out by having a conversation about their health and workload. Look out for any particularly stressful tasks that the employee might be avoiding and see whether you can adjust or help their workload to support them best.
Procrastination is a tricky beast and happens to the best of us. In the workplace, however, procrastination can potentially cause riskier behaviours - rushing tasks, focusing on finishing them for a deadline, and taking safety shortcuts.
Understanding the how and why of procrastination helps everyone out. In reality, it’s not just laziness - procrastination is often a combination of a fear of failure, the inability to connect with your future self, or even a sign of physical or mental exhaustion.
At the end of the day, procrastination is a warning bell. When it sounds, step back, examine what’s going on, refresh and reset - and your results will speak for themselves.