We all postpone things every now and again or don’t really feel like pushing through the laziness to deal with whatever it is we have to do and that’s fine as long as it doesn’t become the norm. In the past 30 years, however, we’ve been become more and more proficient at putting things off, to the point that procrastination has quadrupled.
Procrastination doesn’t seem to register as a negative trait as much as laziness does, though, and we even tend to shrug it off in amusement, especially if we get away with it. Statistics show that the practice has taken a financial toll on around 40% of those affected. From a business perspective, it affects not only the work performance of the procrastinating individual but that of all the people he/she works with on a daily basis.
Before we go into what works and what doesn’t, let’s get one thing straight – procrastination is the practice of chronically dragging ass and has nothing to do with taking common-sense breaks or delays that are due to anything other than simply being too lazy to accomplish a goal.
Do get to the bottom of it
First and foremost, it’s important to identify what makes each person a chronic procrastinator. Sometimes people are so afraid of failure, they’d rather not even try to achieve something and other times they simply have such poor working habits they have no clue how to prioritize. The reasons, of course, vary greatly from person to person but you’ll need to figure them out as you’ll have to adjust your methods to directly address each of their issues.
If you notice your procrastinator is fearful of how others might judge their work, make sure you evaluate it in a one-on-one meeting as opposed to a group meeting. At times, when people get overwhelmed by the amount of work they’ve got to do, especially if it’s a result of their own bad estimates, they tend to shut down in panic. If someone you work with is consistently delivering poor estimates, get to the bottom of it and try to help them come up with more realistic ones.
Don’t use abstract motivators
Most procrastinators are very good at rationalizing their self-sabotaging ways, thrive on abstract notions and unmeasurable goals. They will tell themselves they’ll work on that all day tomorrow or get back to you as soon as they finish x task or speak to Bob’s uncle. Because they themselves are often convinced they will actually do it, they don’t miss a beat and can seem extremely convincing; which is why trying to motivate them using abstract notions is going to fail every single time.
Telling your employee they have to deliver the project asap or telling your boss you need him to give you the full specs before you begin working on the task is about as productive as wasting your breath. Instead, rely on factual information, making sure they understand when they have to do something and the consequences of not doing it.
Do keep them organized
Procrastinators tend to also be disorganized so instead of giving them a big pile of things to do and hope they sort it out themselves, task them with one thing at a time and keep an eye on their progress. If the task stretches over a number of days, issue it incrementally by using milestones and make sure you check with them as often as you can, especially through the first few milestones.
The one thing these people are not is self-starters. No, I don’t much like the word myself. If left to their own devices, they will find ever more pressing things to waste time on and get hung up on the smallest of details which is why you won’t be able to rely on them to organize their own schedules.
Don’t shift the burden of responsibility
When someone doesn’t deliver on time or performs poorly, in the interest of client satisfaction, managers will shift the tasks over to people who consistently perform better; essentially increasing their workload and putting more pressure on them. By using this technique, you’re not only discouraging the procrastinator and giving him a permanent fallback but are effectively punishing those who are doing a good job and potentially creating a very toxic work environment.
If you’re concerned about a person’s ability to deliver on time, use false deadlines instead and if they are indeed unable to stick to them, make sure there are clear consequences and put a schedule in place for them to correct their mistakes. If you have doubts about the quality of the work delivered, pair your procrastinator with a senior team member, making sure they learn while improving their work performance and gain confidence in their own abilities.
Do provide structure
An unstructured working environment, full of uncertainties, shifting priorities and constant urgent tasks is the perfect environment to not just encourage procrastination but downright create it. If the rules constantly change, there’s really no reason to stick to them, right? If everything is always urgent, it stands to reason that nothing is really that urgent, is it? And when you switch between tasks like you switch between channels on a lazy Sunday afternoon, there’s no point in getting fully-invested in performing any of them, you’ll just have to refocus your energy somewhere else soon anyway.
Knowing what to expect 8 times out of 10 ensures your team can properly focus on what they have to achieve, rather than doing the bare minimum and getting things done quickly. A working environment that has no rhyme or reason as to how and when things get done is a very frustrating one and your team will lose interest very fast, eventually leading to slow and poor performance.
Don’t be overcritical
According to Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at De Paul University in Chicago, procrastination is a learned response to an authoritarian parenting style. Introducing more criticism and a highly-authoritarian management style will likely discourage the procrastinator even more.
Although some managers avoid criticism altogether, I am a firm believer that unless you tell someone what they’ve done wrong, they can’t change it – enter constructive criticism. The value of the feedback we give is highly-dependent on how we word it.
If your team has delivered a project late because they were procrastinating and you tell them it was pretty bad and we’ll have to watch out for possible challenges next time, you haven’t expressed anything useful or actionable. You have simply complained. If, however, you convey that there were serious consequences listing the ones that relate to the team directly and what corrective measure you’re about to take, is much more likely to incentivize them.
Don’t manage selectively
Managing people is not about placing them in a handful of stereotypical boxes, however, every team and every working environment requires a clear set of rules that apply to everyone. When they become flexible for some people, your entire team structure will fall apart like a flimsy house of cards.
If you have a single procrastinator in your team and you allow them to work slower than everyone else, because that’s just how fast they are or get annoyed by people taking frequent breaks but let it slide when others chit-chat around the water cooler for 45 minutes, the message you’re conveying is that the rules are optional.
In this dynamic, you’ll soon have a fading sense of fairness and when people feel they’re not being treated fairly they will try to balance the scales on their own. This can mean working slower, more irresponsibly, more missed deadlines, poor product performance and so on, because there are really no consequences to doing things any differently.
Wondering what’s really going on in the mind of a procrastinator? Check out Tim Urban’s brilliant TED Talk on master procrastinators.
Big thanks to Nicholas Thickett for sharing it with the class.
The Bottom Line
Procrastination is not exclusive to the work environment and, whether you’re working side-by-side with one, are being managed by one or are managing several, you’re very unlikely to turn them around. Still, there are ways to minimize the effect chronic procrastination has on the rest of your team and the projects you’re working on, you just have to be willing to invest the time and the effort to do so.