Putting off unpleasant tasks might be understandable if it's a case of not feeling like cutting the grass or washing the car this weekend, but in the workplace where pay rises and career advancement depend on getting things done, could procrastination damage long-term prospects?
Some researchers estimate that one in five people are chronic procrastinators, although more recent thinking suggests the behaviour is better thought of as a spectrum with degrees of severity.
It’s increasingly clear psychology plays a strong role in explaining the cause. Research last year by Fuschsia Sirois at the University of Sheffield uncovered a relationship between procrastination and mood repair, known as cognitive escape hypothesis.
“Some people tell themselves: ‘I have something I need to do and I feel negative about it, and because of that, I may do other things that I enjoy more’. Managing how they currently feel takes priority over taking action towards their goals,” says Dr Deirdre O’Shea, who lectures in work and organisational psychology at the University of Limerick.
Some procrastinators simply aren't good at managing their own time effectively, or motivating themselves, and they can be overly optimistic about the time needed to finish a job, says Dr Yseult Freeney, director of MSc Organisational Psychology at Dublin City University.
“Procrastination tends to be very hard-wired, so people have a preferred approach and they react to work they are given in a particular way.
“If they get a sense of pleasure from a particular task, they’re more likely to do that than the one that takes the harder grind. People who procrastinate are hard to change because they have convinced themselves that they work better under pressure,” she says.
The behaviour doesn’t necessarily stem from not wanting to do a good job. “Some people are perfectionists and they procrastinate when they feel they don’t have skills or resources to do a project well. Fear of failure prevents them from starting,” says Dr Freeney.
Even if the reasons for procrastinating vary, the results for a person’s career are consistent: a 2013 study of more than 22,000 people by academics at the University of Calgary showed higher levels of procrastination were associated with lower salaries, shorter duration of employment and a greater likelihood of being unemployed or underemployed rather than working full-time.
It’s also the cause of significant friction between coworkers.
Dr Freeney carries out team-building exercises for companies, where she has found a clash of working styles triggered by procrastination is one of the greatest sources of tension in a company.
“A manager who is very disciplined and organised and who doesn’t leave things until the last minute finds it very difficult to cope with subordinates who do, so it can lead to tensions between the pair.
“It can mean managers are less likely to assign important, time-sensitive tasks to that person. Someone who procrastinates could lose out on the opportunity to work on tasks that could give them a lot of exposure in the organisation,” she says.
Most people who procrastinate are aware they do so and want to fix the problem. Dr Freeney advises taking steps such as starting with the least preferred task on a given day, or responding to email in batches so it doesn’t distract from the work in hand.
Dr O’Shea recommends using calendar apps to mark progress by breaking down work into a series of mini-tasks to complete in a given day. “People who procrastinate can use this to see if they are actually making realistic plans. In that case, what they need to change is not procrastination, but allocating sufficient time to a task. It’s a tool to help rather than a tool to beat yourself up with,” she says.
The University of Calgary study defined procrastination as a self-regulatory failure, and much of the research to date starts from this premise – but what if we’ve been approaching the problem from the wrong angle? That instead of being a uniquely individual issue, it’s a systemic one where procrastination is a necessary release valve against today’s pressurised office environment?
Today's deadline-driven workplace is an especially fertile breeding ground for the tension between a person and an imposed set of tasks, says Dr Annette Clancy, lecturer in organisational behaviour at University College Dublin School of Business. "Because we have an economic climate that's focused on doing more with less, procrastination may be more obvious than it was in the past. We have an always-on culture, but it simply isn't possible to be always on. It leads to idealisation which inevitably leads to disappointment.
“These attitudes are generated by the work environment, they’re not something people come up with on their own. If the culture in the workplace doesn’t make it possible to speak about failure, stress and overloading, sometimes procrastination is the only way of making these things visible. I don’t necessarily see procrastination as always negative,” she says.
Dr Freeney also believes procrastinators can serve a useful purpose.
“If everyone else on a team is organised, they’re less likely to be able to react to things at the last minute. It’s generally the procrastinator who is less phased by that. It’s not about managers encouraging that behaviour, but it’s about drawing benefits from it as well,” she says.
Dr Clancy advises managers to keep an open mind about procrastination, and to see it as a chance to understand the culture that triggers this type of behaviour. This approach can shed light on whether employees are sufficiently motivated, receive regular feedback and have the resources they need to carry out their work.
“Organisations need to recognise that procrastination is a systemic issue, not only an individual one. Procrastination can give useful data that could illuminate management practice. I have frequently seen people promoted into roles for which they’re not best suited, and a sense of paralysis can come out of a fear of making a mistake, but the organisation hasn’t stepped in to support them in that. Or, if there is a long lag between completing a project and getting feedback, that can lead to procrastination, because people ask themselves what was the point of doing that. Managers need to look at how they are supporting people in their roles, whether through mentoring, supporting or training,” says Dr Clancy.
That support can include time management training, which has been found to have a positive effect on procrastination. A 2003 study by Wendelien Van Eerde at the University of Amsterdam saw a significant decrease in avoidance behaviour and worry, along with increased ability to manage time among individuals who completed a 1½ day time management seminar.
“Presenting it as time management helps to present it as a carrot rather than a stick, so employees see it as a way to improve,” says Dr O’Shea.
Managers can reduce procrastination by encouraging staff to make plans about how to complete their tasks, and monitor progress towards completion.
“Procrastinators tend to have an abstract notion of the work. If managers set mini-goals and have regular meetings with employees to ask how they’re progressing, that will help them as opposed to just having the final deadline,” says Dr O’Shea.
There’s practical evidence to show this works. In an experiment at Columbia Bank in 2002, staff who received more frequent reminders about their goals, and who were awarded small prizes every week for achieving them, showed improvements in performance, better workload distribution, improved satisfaction levels and reduced stress.
Making the time to give ongoing feedback rather than the annual performance review could be key to eliminating wasted time through procrastination – delivering productivity improvements that help both employees and employers.