Not everyone is thriving while working from home. For some employees, their productivity has plummeted and with it their sense of self-worth. In this month’s piece, we look into the deeper drivers of chronic procrastination, how hybrid work is exacerbating it for some, how individuals can regain control of their time, as well as what managers can do to better support struggling staff.
The public has spoken. Flexible work, which for most of us means working from home at least a few days a week, has now finally been cemented as the new norm for knowledge workers much to the chagrin of captains of industry. While the broader impacts on collaborative productivity are yet to be fully realised, in general, individual productivity levels remain reasonable, if not a little better than before. However, spend more than five minutes talking to a team leader or manager and you’ll discover that on a per-individual basis, it’s clear that some employees are struggling to deliver. During lock-down, the obvious culprits for this were a combination of chronic fear and uncertainty, along with home-schooling. However, now, with work/life routines stabilising and most kids back at school, explanations for the stark differences in productivity are running thin.
Over the last few months, I’ve spoken with several dozen employees in this scenario, and while their home contexts and mental health vary greatly, I’ve noticed a common theme; chronic procrastination. Many reported agonizing over their to-do lists, yet feeling simultaneously paralysed – a Damocles sword of deadlines hanging overhead. Curiously, a significant proportion told me this had not been a major issue for them when working in the office. Now, they feel powerless, guilty, incompetent, and angry at themselves. They’re turning down social engagements and weekend activities in an attempt to catch up on work, yet infuriatingly, they find themselves pottering around the house or aimlessly scrolling social media. It’s debilitating and they’re suffering in silence out of shame for being seen as lazy. Yet, they also readily accept that their workload isn’t drastically different than before. Recent overseas research echoes what I’ve been told. So what’s going on?
As someone with a penchant for creative work, as well as knowing full well the pressures of operating a business, I’m familiar with the unpredictable rhythm of productivity and the anxiety and exhaustion brought about by bouts of procrastination. However, I also spent a decade or so working closely with hundreds of business leaders and employees to better understand the internal and external struggles of being productive. Thus, I’ve got a reasonable grasp on the research and real-world experience of procrastination.
This is my attempt to make sense of this puzzle and hopefully offer practical insights. However, before we try to make sense of the relationship between hybrid work and procrastination, we need to get up to speed on the research.
Why do we procrastinate?
Let’s be clear; we all put off doing things. Typically, this is because the task [read: chore] is odious, unpleasant or unsatisfying. Take, for example, putting the bins out on a cold winter’s night. Delaying that task is understandable yet most of us are able to pick ourselves up off the couch and get it over and done with. That’s garden variety procrastination, and arguably best described as a momentary lapse in motivation. That’s not the procrastination I’m concerned about. What I’m talking about is a very different beast.
Around 20% of the population are what can be described as ‘chronic’ or ‘problematic’ procrastinators. They are often driven to despair by an invisible force that foils every plan they have to achieve their most important goals. The more important the goal, the harder it is to complete. Unsurprisingly then, their mental health suffers as does their quality of life. What’s more, while other conditions such as depression and ADHD have a formal diagnosis and a reasonable degree of public acceptance, procrastination is typically dismissed as laziness. Outsiders are quick to offer you sermons on prioritisation, time management, willpower, getting up at 5 am, and an endless number of ‘solutions’. All of which are patronising, dismissive, and ignore the research.
Here’s how chronic procrastinators confound their critics.
- Chronic procrastinators will expend enormous amounts of energy on other activities while procrastinating, so the ‘laziness’ title doesn’t fit.
- Telling chronic procrastinators to prioritise better simply results in them procrastinating by making lists.
- Same goes for time management. They’ll spend their time organising their calendar down to the minute and still avoid the most important task.
- Far from being ignorant of their issues, chronic procrastinators are well aware and watch their own self-sabotaging behaviours in real-time. It’s an infuriating paradox that fuels a cycle of self-blame and anxiety.
Those superficial habit hacks miss the real story. Here are three leading theories on what’s really going on for chronic procrastinators.
Psychodynamic Lens: Research shows a significant correlation between parenting style and children who grow up to be chronic procrastinators. They are often children raised by demanding parents who set unrealistic goals for them and then only offer love and affection if those goals are met. In this impossible scenario, delaying task completion means delaying the inevitable pain of failure and rejection in the eyes of their parents. Procrastination, therefore, becomes a passive-aggressive strategy to cope with this home environment. As these children grow up, these internal scripts play out again and again throughout their lives, or, until they learn to rewrite those scripts.
Behavioural Lens: Delivering important work, especially to a deadline comes with stress. It’s often unpleasant, however, we also feel a sense of relief and accomplishment once the task is complete. For a chronic procrastinator, the repeated high stress and anxiety associated with such tasks become so painful that they avoid the task in an effort to spare themselves the pain. It is only once the anxiety of the rapidly approaching deadline becomes overwhelming that they take on the difficult task — usually in the form of frantic all-nighters — which in turn, reinforce the negative experience.
Cognitive Behavioural Lens: Chronic procrastinators tend to have irrational thoughts about their ability to complete the task, what success should look like, and how others will judge them. In short, they want perfection, and predictably, deem themselves incapable of achieving it. Procrastination also serves to protect one’s social esteem. They can blame the outcome on lack of time or laziness, not because of a lack of competency. In other words, being able to say “I could have done it, but didn’t have the time” is less shameful than revealing that you “aren’t capable”.
Through these lenses, we can see that our battle has far more to do with the unconscious stories we tell ourselves than our ability to organise a calendar.
How is Hybrid Work impacting Procrastination
Non-procrastinators keep it real.
Dr Joseph R Ferrari is oft touted as the grandfather of procrastination research, or as it’s known in the trade, ‘volitional psychology’. Ferrari’s work suggests that chronic procrastinators benefit by being around non-procrastinators. In simple terms, non-procrastinators help chronic procrastinators by keeping them on track and on schedule. Interestingly, it seems that by simply being in the presence of a non-procrastinator, a procrastinator will improve. The exact mechanism isn’t clear, but it’s thought that since many procrastinators dread disappointing others, being in the same room as a non-procrastinating colleague motivates them to stick with the task at hand. Another factor may be that having less-perfectionistic colleagues around helps relieve the pressure of expectation. As we’ve already learned, procrastinators are often crippled by the pressure of the unrealistic expectations they set for themselves. Thus, colleagues who are happy to do a ‘good enough’ job help perfectionists to be realistic about the standards they set.
Advice for managers: If you suspect this is the case in your team, be clear and realistic about the standards you set, both minimums and maximums (remember: perfectionistic procrastinators don’t have a maximum!). Also, they might benefit from more frequent check-ins that encourage progress, not perfection.
Where did the love go?
Another sub-theme that came through in my discussions with employees was the waning sense of purpose, meaning and connection in their work. Projects are delivered remotely and often without the instant gratification of a smile or small celebratory chat. As we’ve just learned, external validation and people-pleasing are common traits for chronic procrastinators, so it makes sense that without this reward, they feel a reduced sense of satisfaction. In short, work feels more transactional and less relational, which in turn breaks the cue-craving-response-reward system which is crucial in the formation of a habit.
Advice for managers: Make an extra effort to let them know you’re grateful for the work they’ve done. Email is the bare minimum. For a more powerful impact, give them a call.
A New Centre of the Universe
Simultaneously, those that I spoke with mentioned that after two years of working from home, work had ceased to be the centre of their identity. None that I spoke with said that was any fault of the business, they’d just drifted apart. That, plus all the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic had shifted their priorities. As we’ll learn later, intrinsic motivation is often connected with our sense of identity and our future self. Without this connection, work tasks become more extrinsically motivated which procrastinators struggle with.
Advice for managers: This one is trickier, though not impossible. Start by getting a sense of what your employees’ bigger goals are in life. What are they aiming for in the years to come, both in terms of their career, but also personally? Next, explore ways in which what they can do in your business can help make their dream possible. Encouraging them to connect their own internal ambitions with their current work, should help them find motivation and momentum.
Alternatively, you could just increase the rewards for delivering work, however, that’s a slipper-slope with extrinsic motivators as you constantly need to up the ante. Daniel Pink wrote this very readable book about intrinsic vs extrinsic motivation. Here’s his TED talk about the powerful difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. (*note. Some academics criticise this book, but the fact remains, its lessons are quick and practical.)
How to overcome procrastination
There’s no denying it, procrastination is a self-sabotaging behaviour and is one of the most common barriers to success in life. When we look back on the time we’ve squandered and the opportunities we’ve lost, the regrets build. With that in mind, let’s look at ways to overcome procrastination.
The Fundamentals of a Productive Mind
No cognitive hacks can overcome the impact of a mind and body depleted of energy. There are certain non-negotiables; eat a decent diet, sleep enough, and exercise sufficiently to ensure well-oxygenated blood is pumped around your brain and body. Plus, pushing ourselves through exercise and getting a subsequent endorphin rush has an added benefit; we train ourselves to get comfortable with discomfort — that’s essential for overcoming the initial resistance we feel when taking on a task.
While we’re dealing with the non-psychological, anything you can do to remove distractions from your physical environment is a massive first step. If people are a distraction, isolate yourself, wear noise-cancelling headphones and play ambient music. Mute notifications on your phone if you can, or get serious and disconnect from the internet entirely. It’s no coincidence that some of the most productive and powerful people in the world still rely on a simple pen and notepad. This is also why the 5 am crowd have a productivity advantage; as Apple CEO Tim Cook explained, the simple truth is; it’s distraction-free time of day.
Now, with the external environment taken care of, let’s dive into your mind.
Understand What’s Driving your Procrastination
Look at the three leading theories for procrastination I laid out in the first section and you’ll see that external validation and holding oneself to unrealistic standards feature strongly. In short, it’s a form of perfectionism that is holding you back. Take a look at this list and think about how many are true for you.
- You are all-or-nothing in your thinking. E.g. If your work isn’t flawless, or doesn’t knock your audience’s socks off, it’s not worth doing.
- You imagine all the work involved in creating this masterpiece and instantly feel overwhelmed.
- You focus on your errors or inadequacies and discount the good aspects of your work.
- You think a lot about what your audience will think of your work, and you assume they’ll be critical or disappointed.
- You beat yourself up by telling yourself you should be working more diligently.
- You feel like you’re never good enough.
Do any of those sound familiar? Then read on.
How to Stop Feeling Productivity Shame
We live in a culture obsessed with productivity (see: Escaping the productivity cult). Technological progress has stripped away downtime and removed much of the low-stakes, low-pressure work which punctuated our work days and offered moments to recharge. The result; everything is important and urgent. For perfectionistic procrastinators; the shame of failing to meet these sky-high standards is crushing. Perhaps then, it shouldn’t be a complete surprise that practicing self-compassion is one of the most practical and effective tools available.
Of course, the shame of failing to meet expectations isn’t new. Spiritual traditions have been onto this for millennia. Buddhism has Loving Kindness Mantras in which people meditate on phrases like: “May I be kind to myself“, “May I accept myself completely, just as I am“, “May I remember that we are all human“. Christianity has the serenity prayer “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; taking this world as it is and not as I would have it.” I’m no theologian but I think it’s a safe bet that almost every religion big or small would have something analogous. In short, any practice that nurtures self-compassion is worth experimenting with.
For many of us, mantras aren’t enough. That’s when psychotherapeutic approaches can be of use. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), with its focus on self-compassion, has shown to be very effective in this regard. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), with its focus on fixing faulty logic, also helps people avoid the black-and-white thinking, catastrophising, and crystal ball gazing that paralyses people’s thinking.
Even then, sometimes those scripts of insufficiency written in childhood are carved too deep. In that case, you might want to consider Internal Family Systems Therapy (IFS) or other forms of therapy that delve more deeply into those dynamics.
If you don’t have the time or inclination for any of these things, then try this; give yourself some credit and cut yourself some slack!
Is Lack of Motivation Causing Your Procrastination?
Do you ever notice that when procrastinating, you’ll go down rabbit holes on the web looking up your hobbies or personal passions? Suddenly, you’re fascinated and focused! Meanwhile, the idea of doing the important task you’re avoiding looks downright pointless by comparison. That’s an important clue. Your personal passions are driven by intrinsic motivation. In other words; you do it for yourself! But I’ll bet that important task you’re avoiding feels like an obligation to someone else. In that case, you’re battling ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ motivators against one another, and extrinsic motivation just can’t compete unless the wolves are at your door.
The trick, therefore, is to connect that particular task to a goal that is personally meaningful for you. For example, if you feel stuck doing admin tasks, while your dream is to be a digital creative, get into the habit of reframing writing those boring company reports as an opportunity to develop your graphic design proficiency. If that sounds like delusional thinking, you’re not entirely wrong, however, the fact is life involves drudgery and as the Stoics, Zen monks, and most leaders in their field attest; the ability to reframe the mundane is key to mastery in any field.
To take it a step further, research shows that individuals that develop a strong connection to their future self are better at overcoming procrastination and all-round self-regulation. So, sitting down and getting clear about your big life goals may be the missing piece of the puzzle for you.
Now, a caveat. If you genuinely can’t see how what you are doing connects to your bigger goals in life, maybe it’s time to jump ship and find a role or lifestyle that’s more in line with your dreams and values.
Do you really want to overcome your procrastination habit?
While procrastination does have obvious downsides, it’s not all bad. Some people are ‘active procrastinators’. They consciously and strategically delay activities. For example, they may put off taking action on a project to provide time for more information to cross their desk, see how other stakeholders or competitors respond, or lure impatient or over-eager colleagues to do the work instead. Active procrastinators may make their managers nervous and foster resentment in their teammates, but the fact remains; they usually do quite well at work.
One other potential positive side-effect of procrastination is serendipity. Chronic procrastinators tend to get sidetracked, perhaps down a research rabbit hole on a loosely related yet fascinating topic. It’s not uncommon for them to stumble upon valuable information this way. In other words, procrastination can open the door to new ideas, whereas those who only ever stay ‘on task’ are less likely to discover potentially transformative left-field ideas.
Of course, these are dangerously tempting justifications for chronic procrastinators. So, entertain them at your own risk.
What Tools Can Help Me Beat Procrastination?
For almost a decade, I field tested all the most popular focus and productivity tools and techniques with over 400 staff and managers from all walks of life. In short, I’ll say this: no technology or tool is a magic wand. It cannot overcome the emotional challenges mentioned above. You need to do “the inner work” for any improvements to be sustainable. That said, of everything tested. Here’s what stood out for effectiveness and ease of use;
- The One Pushup Exercise Routine. My students came up with this name to capture the essence of the approach. Basically, just starting is the biggest hurdle, so forget about the big picture, and just do one thing. Write one sentence. Make one call. Clean one piece of furniture. Do one pushup. Nine times out of ten, once you’ve started, you’ll keep going.
- The Pomodoro Technique. It’s a classic for a reason. Basically, you set a timer for 25 minutes and smash out your work. Then take a 5 min break and do whatever you want. Repeat. After a while, you can experiment with other blocks of time. There are lots of Pomodoro apps and programs out there. I currently use YAPA 2 because it’s free, customisable yet simple, and floats on my screen above all other windows.
- Time Block to Eliminate Decision Fatigue. Deciding what to do next is often when the distraction/procrastination cycle kicks in. A simple trick is to spend time each morning sorting out your to-do list with a quick prioritising tool like the Eisenhower matrix, and schedule it into your calendar of choice. Then you simply do whatever is on your calendar. Importantly, because perfectionist-procrastinators are such task masters, it’s very helpful to book in ‘nothing time’ where you can do whatever you want without the crushing guilt of feeling lazy.
*Note: While organising my calendar every morning served me in the past, my current workload is too variable and unpredictable for this. Fortunately, there’s a burgeoning field of AI assistants that can take care of all this and more. Reclaim.ai and Motion are the current leaders of the pack. I’ve tested both, and while eye-wateringly expensive, Motion had some killer features that won me over. I’ve been using it for about six months and it’s hard to describe the weight it’s taken off my mind. Now, I just focus on getting things done. (There’s a referral discount at present. Feel free to contact me if you’re interested)
When is procrastination a matter of mental health?
Procrastination isn’t a diagnosable mental illness. However, it can be a symptom of it.
For example, depression often leaves us unable to find the energy, motivation, or focus to take on even a small task. Meanwhile, anxiety can have us too wound up to focus. Similarly, people with ADHD are prone to procrastination, particularly if they find the task boring.
Of course, as with most issues of mental health. It’s not a one-way street. Procrastination leads to difficulties in completing tasks important for school, work, finance, health and relationships — basically all aspects of life. The resulting stress, along with the sense of guilt and shame drag down our sense of self-worth and motivation, often creating a self-reinforcing cycle. Furthermore, stress and worry impact sleep, and increase the likelihood physical health complications.
Given just how much of a factor our emotional health plays in procrastination, it makes sense to have a few sessions with a therapist so you can explore these issues. In helping you unpack your own story, a skilled therapist will help you gain insight into why you think and behave the way you do, which in turn serves as a stepping stone for you to begin your journey of regaining greater clarity and control over your life.