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Procrastination at work: Why it happens and how to stop it ruining your productivity

Updated 6th November 2022

Procrastination is something we're all familiar with to one degree or another. An incredibly dull or time-consuming task needs doing. Maybe even something important, and it's just the last thing in the world you want to think about. 

Avoiding procrastination at work can be difficult. People aren't always consciously aware of exactly why they're doing it. But, at the same time, we're usually acutely aware that it's happening. To understand what's going on, you need to check in with your people and really listen to them. Only then can you have an appropriate performance conversation.

So, come spend a few minutes with us to explore the phenomena of procrastination. But only if you haven't got something more important to do. 

What is procrastination?

Essentially, procrastination is a form of cognitive dissonance. There's something you need to do, that might even be time-sensitive. But you convince yourself that it's acceptable, maybe even preferable, to put it off for a while.

It isn't exclusively a work-related problem, and we're all a little guilty of it from time to time. The problem is that unchecked procrastination at work can easily land employees in hot water. Procrastination can be a sign that an employee has become disengaged in their role. But it's often more complicated than someone simply being uninterested in their job. Instead of immediately going to a disciplinary response, managers should reach out and try to help procrastinating employees.

What makes people procrastinate?

When you see an employee procrastinating, it can be tempting to just write them off as lazy or easily distracted. But procrastination is actually a psychological response to negative feelings. You might remember a time when you put something off because the thought of doing it filled you with boredom or even dread. 

Avoiding procrastination at work can be easier said than done. Procrastination-related bad habits can be a huge problem for people who struggle with anxiety or self-doubt. Many people who procrastinate are actually perfectionists who might put off finishing a task for fear of seeing the flaws in their own work. 

What this means is that procrastination is basically avoidant behaviour that people fall into to protect themselves from a flood of negative emotion. This is why sinking into a pit of procrastination can feel so deceptively good.

Avoiding procrastination at work can be a challenge, particularly for unengaged employees.
Avoiding procrastination at work can be a challenge for many employees, particularly those who are not engaged at work.

The consequences of procrastination at work

Procrastination at work, if left unchecked, can result in some serious fallout for the employee, and the organisation that employs them. These include:

The guilt of procrastination deepens your insecurities

It's ironic that people procrastinate as a way of escaping negative emotion because it often just makes those feelings worse. You might avoid your responsibilities due to imposter syndrome. But, in the end, not doing your job just makes those feelings of not belonging seem justified. As a result, serial procrastination can devastate an employee's mental wellbeing.

Tasks pile up until you reach your tipping point

For managers, a key element of engaging their team effectively is making sure they aren't overloaded. But that doesn't help when the tasks they assign aren't getting done. Procrastination at work may provide temporary relief, but those assignments aren't going anywhere. And sooner or later, the employee will either have to power through it, or buckle under the pressure.

Three quarters of a million people die each year from overwork-related strokes and coronary disease, with people working 54 or more hours a week being particularly at risk. You might not think much of a working late for a week. But it'll catch up with you sooner or later. Avoiding procrastination at work isn't just about keeping your boss off your back. It's about your personal wellbeing and long-term health too.

Procrastination at work puts your job on the line

Procrastination may not be the same as intentional laziness. But people aren't mind readers, and there's no guarantee they'll see it that way. An employee might be able to talk their way out of those first couple of missed deadlines. Too many, however, and their manager's sympathy is going to run out.

Unchecked workplace procrastination impacts everyone

When people stop doing their jobs, the whole organisation breaks down. If you're procrastinating something really important, chances are that you're keeping someone waiting. Procrastination in HR workers, for example, might cause a delay in payroll that prevents a whole department from getting their wages on time. Obviously, this threatens their financial wellbeing. And if a serial procrastinator lets their work pile up, chances are their whole team is going to have to put in some overtime just to get it done. This might damage the social connections they've established with each other and limit their ability to work together effectively.

Procrastination can affect the bottom line

Between overtime, the impact on customer experience, and lost productivity, procrastination at work can end up costing businesses a fair bit of money. Estimates for how much procrastination actually costs businesses each year vary wildly. But they range well into tens or even hundreds of billions of pounds (or dollars). 

How to get the hang of avoiding procrastination at work

While it's perfectly normal to procrastinate from time to time, the habit of it can be difficult to break. If you want to stop, you first need the willpower to break yourself out of it. Fortunately, we have a few tips on how to make avoiding procrastination at work that little bit easier for employees and managers:

Employers should provide tools for effective goal setting

A good goal-setting tool can be a great motivator. After all, it's hard to ignore your responsibilities when there's a big list of them. At Weekly10, we offer managers a choice between SMART Goals and OKRs. Whatever you choose, you'll be able to connect the objectives you assign employees to the wider company goals. A transparent goal structure like this helps to motivate your employees by showing them how their work impacts the business.

Break large objectives down into achievable goals

Sometimes, we procrastinate because the task at hand is too big and complicated to approach. So try breaking your assignments down into manageable goals and taking it one step at a time. If your manager uses the OKRs option on Weekly10, you'll even be able to set personal goals through our platform to give yourself that extra bit of encouragement

Understand the emotions driving you to procrastinate

What makes procrastination at work so difficult to deal with is that we often don't admit to ourselves the real reason we're doing it. So you might be ignoring that stack of paperwork because of your aversion to the boredom and frustration of it. But you tell yourself you're going to lunch early because you'll be able to focus more effectively afterwards. Then, when you get back, you need to check your email. Then tidy your desk, wash your coffee mug, and so on.

Catching yourself in the habit is easier said than done. It requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence. Learning to catch yourself is the first step towards confronting the reactions compelling you to procrastinate. Then it's all about accepting them, and moving on and maintaining an awareness.

Managers must safeguard employee wellbeing while teaching resiliency

Overloading your employees is a sure-fire way to stress them out, and it's those feelings of stress that tempt people to procrastinate. So it's in the organisation's best interests for managers to make sure employees are receiving manageable workloads. But workplaces can be very demanding. So it's important for managers to help employees to become more resilient to workplace stress as part of their professional development.

So, there we have it, a quick dive into the world of avoiding procrastination at work. If you need to kill some more time before jumping back into work and you'd like to learn more about how Weekly10 can help you keep your staff engaged, check out our quick explainer video

Keep up with the progress of your team in a way that is unobtrusive, using OKRs or SMART goals as part of a weekly employee check-in. Sound good?