We all have those moments when we sit down at work, look at the stack of tasks in front of us, and feel a wave of dread wash over us. It's not that we don't know how to do these things—it's just that they seem so overwhelming and challenging to get started on.
What is procrastination?
Procrastination is putting things off or delaying tasks to a certain point in the future. Merriam's dictionary states procrastination "implies blameworthy delay, especially through laziness or apathy".
The science behind why we delay tasks
While there is an assumption that a procrastinator is lazy, this is not always the case. There are many psychological reasons why we may put off tasks. Below is a short list of reasons why we may procrastinate.
- Depression, anxiety, ADHD, OCD
- Lack of motivation
- Insufficient knowledge
- Present bias
- Lack of self-esteem
- Low energy
How procrastination affects businesses
Procrastination has detrimental effects on SMEs. In 2019, the ONS reported that the UK's average output per worker was 13% below the G7 average. If the UK does have a productivity issue, fighting procrastination can help improve productivity, helping businesses and the wider society.
Delaying tasks can ruin customer relationships, tarnish your brand image and, worse, lead to your business's collapse. In the initial stages, startups burn through cash very quickly. Employees and business owners cannot afford to procrastinate as delaying tasks is costing them in lost future revenue. CBInsights found that the second highest reason (29%) why startups fail is running out of cash. When time is money, procrastination can drain your business of vital resources.
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Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a talk therapy that can assist you in managing your issues by altering your attitudes and behaviours. It follows the concept that what we think and feel impacts our behaviour. If we have negative thoughts, this can be reflected in our actions.
CBT is a great way of addressing procrastination as it forces you to face why you are delaying a task and work on those issues. A study in the Education Research Review found that CBT reduced procrastination more strongly than other intervention methods.
Setting small and realistic goals
Sometimes when you are tasked with a project, the sheer size of it can cause you to bury your head in the sand. In this instance, dividing the project into small, realistic goals is an excellent way to fight procrastination. Breaking down a big task makes the project you are working on appear less scary and more digestible. In Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about how "small changes often appear to make no difference until you cross a critical threshold. The most effective outcomes of any compounding process are delayed. You need to be patient."
To-do lists and prioritising
To do lists are significant as they help you stay on track. Without a visual to-do list, you cannot track your task and progress and reduce distractions. One study found that tasks we haven't completed can cause "more anxiety and less contentment", while simply making a plan for such jobs is proven to alleviate such emotions.
In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey discusses prioritising tasks for optimal efficiency. He suggests making a quadrant with the following four categories:
- Urgent and important tasks
- Non-urgent and important tasks
- Urgent and unimportant tasks
- Non-urgent and unimportant tasks
The order in which one should complete such tasks is 1 to 4. Procrastination arises when we start our day with non-urgent, non-important tasks. By the time it's 5 pm, or we've hit the 3 pm slump, we have no time or energy to complete the energy-consuming tasks that matter.
Tips for employers
There may be some things you can do as an employer to reduce procrastination in your workplace. Consider motivating employees or helping them to control aspects of their life which may lead to procrastination.
- provide a subscription to Headspace as a company benefit
- reward employees for completing urgent projects or significant milestones
- facilitate access to therapy/CBT through insurance
- provide healthy snacks/coffee to improve alertness
- generous sickness policy or mental health days/duvet days
- have regular catch ups
Listen to your employees, as feedback can generally indicate subconscious reasons why employees may be procrastinating. A study by Ultimate Software shows that 92% of employees say having technology that helps them can improve their satisfaction. While a survey by Condeco shows that 64% of businesses said flexible working positively impacted productivity.
Being productive isn't just a matter of pushing through the work. It also means not wasting time with unproductive—and, sometimes, even counter-productive—methods. Sometimes small changes in our work habits can significantly impact our productivity levels. So next time you or your employees slip into procrastination mode, try implementing the methods above to try and fight it.