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How to Overcome Procrastination at Work

How to Overcome Procrastination at Work

In the last post, we figured out how to stop wishing we had more time. Thank God, because we weren't getting our wish, anyway. But say we did. What happens when we have plenty of time? Do we get our work done? Do we at least get started?

My favorite method of procrastinating is to read funny articles on procrastination.

For example, this guy is a riot.

(Watch his TED Talk too. You'll laugh, and you'll remember him next time you feel tempted to put off crazy-important stuff.)

But we are here to talk employee engagement. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that procrastination is disengagement. You may not hate the totality of your work. (I don't. And Tim Urban, the hysterically funny voice of WaitButWhy.com, doesn't either.) But we have all disengaged from certain tasks that we keep putting off for later.

When you are mentally engaged, you have the opposite problem: you can't stop. You can't stop thinking about work. You can't wait to get your hands on it. You are bursting with questions and ideas. You shut out all distractions. You hunt down your sources, and you find your answers in minutes.

Why can't we work like this all the time?

Granted, nobody gets an adrenaline rush to chase down every last thing on his to-do list. When we legitimately postpone some tasks to give our full attention to others, it's called prioritizing. When we prioritize less critical stuff, it's procrastination.

Procrastination is pure insanity, and it boggles the mind to observe it first hand. Especially when it happens to us and the consequences are severe. The odd part is that procrastinators want the job done just as much as the go-getters. The difference is that procrastinators won't take action. They whole-heartedly desire the end result but will have nothing to do with making it happen.

It is pointless to refute their logic. Just as it is useless to try to talk ourselves out of procrastination. We already get it. And we are already ashamed of ourselves. We need help. Life coaching. Self-help. TED Talks... We swallow tons of expert advice and even try to follow it. We set an earlier deadline we know we are going to miss. We break up the project into smaller, less intimidating steps. And still, we procrastinate.

The reason popular anti-procrastination strategies don't work for us is that none of them do anything to engage us. If you loathe your task, you will procrastinate. It makes no difference how much you despise yourself and upset others. As Tim Urban points out, nothing but extreme fear and pressure will move you to action.

But I am not here to remind people that they'll soon be dead, with their life's work unfinished—or not even started. If you're up for the inconvenient truth, Tim does it way better (and funnier) than I.

Where fear and pressure fall short, a kinder, gentler approach is in order. Ask yourself what makes a particular task so loathsome that you would risk humiliation and failure in order to avoid it.

For me it usually comes down to one of three reasons:

  1. I never ever want to do it.
    Like cleaning my house. I find that the best way to deal with these kinds of chores is to delegate them. I hire house cleaners. And if you have no one to delegate to, well, you have to improve the process. Can you eliminate or automate some steps? If the answer is "no," and it is your job, I'd look for another one.
  2. I don't know where to start.
    Like publishing my first book. Look, it's always discouraging when you are not just missing some answers, but also struggle to ask an intelligent question. If you find yourself in this situation, recognize that you need more information. Put all pressure aside and shift your focus to getting the knowledge you need to proceed with confidence.
  3. I am terrified of making a fool of myself.
    Like when someone asks me to do public speaking. This is similar to item 2. above, except that no amount of research gets me psyched about the task. Here, procrastination may be justified. It may be my survival instinct telling me I'm not ready. Our primitive brain is not always wrong. I may not want to obey it at all times, but dismissing it wholesale is not wise either.

To sum up, procrastination is not the enemy we think it is. It's only the messenger. The message is that we've disengaged from the work we need to do. When we fight procrastination with all of our strength, we miss the real target. We ignore the real threat and lose the opportunity to troubleshoot our relationship with our work.

Ready to stop procrastinating? A little honesty can go a long way. Don't back away from the problem. Confront it. The solution could be as simple as the three scenarios I described above. Notice that in two of those cases, the bothersome task has forever disappeared from my to-do list. Make that your goal. No gimmicks and no toiling in misery. Do the work that fully engages you—by either eliminating the loathsome tasks or changing the way you approach them.

Workplace procrastination has many more complicating factors. Like career path, access to resources, your relationship with the boss, and company policies. All these may engage and energize you—or to turn you into a hardened procrastinator. These topics lie at the core of every productivity, quality, and creativity issue companies face today. And each one deserves a separate and detailed investigation.

I go through them case-by-case in Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? If you are a manager, you will likely find your challenge in the book and see how others have handled it. Same if you aspire to rise through the ranks or run your own company someday. The sooner you learn to understand and motivate real people, the smoother your ride will be.

Finally, when you catch others procrastinating, don't rush to tighten the screws. Find out what makes a particular assignment their least favorite. Are they well matched to the tasks? Do they know where to get help? Do they feel empowered and supported?

What you discover may not only help one person complete one project. It may help you transform the entire company.


If you procrastinate like me, you might like my book, because it makes a great distraction, and it just might psych you up about work again.

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Tim Eisenhauer
Written by Tim Eisenhauer

Tim is president and co-founder of Axero Solutions, a leading intranet software vendor. He's also a bestselling author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Mastering Employee Engagement. Tim’s been featured in Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur, CNBC, Today, and other leading publications.

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