You’ve likely been there, facing down a nagging task and continually finding a reason to put it off. “You want to get this stuff done, and yet when the moment of truth—the time of action—comes, it’s thought that perhaps tomorrow would be a better day,” says Piers Steel, the Brookfield Management research chair at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business. The word “procrastination,” after all, comes from the Latin procrastinus, referring to something “belonging to tomorrow.”
While many people have first-hand experience with procrastination, there are differences in our delay tactics. Steel and three co-authors recently examined those differences in a paper published in the academic journal Personality and Individual Differences. Their research offers insights into tactics leaders can use to motivate employees and create a stronger work culture.
Let’s go back to that aforementioned nagging task. Some would put off starting the job, an approach the researchers call “onset delay.” Others will procrastinate after they’ve begun, as they try to stay on track and meet the goal. The study refers to this as a delay related to “sustained goal striving.” Steel, who is also the author of The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done, explains the distinction in another way: Do you exert your energy at the beginning of the task or later on?
Using two studies involving high school and university students in Norway, Steel and his co-authors separated these types of procrastination. Participants used a five-point scale to evaluate whether they agreed with various statements related to onset delay (“Even after I make a decision, I delay acting upon it,” for example) and sustained goal striving delay (“When working on a task, I find myself browsing and reading irrelevant sites”).
The researchers found that onset delay seems to be the better indicator of people who are prone to procrastination generally, although they note delays in goal striving are more difficult to monitor, report and measure. Both types of procrastination narrow the available time for a task to be completed, which can lead to stress and suboptimal work performance.
While many people view procrastination as a character flaw, Steel sees it another way: There is simply a mismatch between who we are and our modern environment. “A lot of us are struggling with the overabundance of tempting alternatives. They’re everywhere,” he says. “The easier it is for people to do otherwise, the more often they’re going to do that.” In an age of Big Data and machine learning algorithms, those temptations are only getting stronger. There’s an algorithm out there that’s being constantly refined to determine exactly what tasty treat (like an online video or viral social media post) you should be served next, Steel says.
No one-size-fits-all solution exists to counteract procrastination, considering the diverse and complex factors that create delays in the first place. But for managers and executives, understanding when and why employees struggle with those tempting alternatives can help. Consider that people stall in different ways—some people procrastinate before cleaning and some people do it by cleaning—and that various workplace projects may lend themselves to certain types of dawdling.
Delays are more likely to occur when working on a big project, for example. There’s a longer period of time to complete the task, meaning more opportunity for things to go wrong with the endeavour. Plus, when a project is so large that the finish line is out of sight, it can be more difficult to stay committed and focused. “Long-term goal completion is in itself an important, a wonderful, a vital and an unnatural act,” Steel says. “Because it’s unnatural, it needs a little bit of infrastructure around it. It’s the boss’s responsibility to provide that infrastructure, because most people can’t do it on their own.”
When it comes to accomplishing big goals in the workplace, Steel says the number one tool is requiring employees to complete weekly reports. By tracking and sharing developments, employees have a clearer and more manageable path toward the finish line, while leaders can identify and respond to problems as they occur.
Consider, too, what could cause employees to procrastinate. Requiring people to react to messages immediately, for example, creates constant interruptions that greatly affect productivity. “Don’t have a culture where people are expected to respond to emails in minutes. That is a luxury,” Steel says. He recommends checking your inbox at specific times, such as first thing in the morning and before lunch, rather than as the messages roll in.
Hilda Gan is the president and chief people officer at People Bright Consulting Inc., an HR firm based in Markham, Ont., and previously co-founded iTrans Consulting, an engineering consulting company. Educating staff about productivity and what it means to the bottom line became a priority at her old firm, Gan says, after in-house analysis showed if all employees could have just 15 minutes more productivity in a day, the company’s annual profits would increase by a percentage point.
Gan says it’s important for managers to understand their employees' reasons for stalling. “Sometimes it’s disengagement; sometimes it’s boredom; sometimes it’s unclear messages and not knowing what the manager wants and therefore just not being able to do the work,” she says. In addition to clearly communicating expectations, she advises managers to also take time to get to know staff better. “Find out what gives them that challenge in their work, and then give them those opportunities,” she says.
While procrastination can become a workplace problem when it affects performance, Gan notes the behaviour is often something to be aware of and simply manage, rather than entirely overcome. A procrastinator herself, Gan has accepted she works best with a bit of stress. “Everybody needs to recognize what they do to get the job done,” she says.
Steel also has a propensity for procrastination. He learned he needs concentrated time to succeed and has found various tricks to make that possible, such as using leisure time as a reward. Those tactics have limits, though, in a world populated with distractions. Sometimes we’re still going to watch the latest funny cat video, Steel says, and that’s okay. “We have to be a little bit more gentle with who we are,” he says.