Procrastinating for a more stressful tomorrow
  • leadership
  • Blog post

Procrastinating for a more stressful tomorrow

I’m a writer. In my experience, this predisposes me to one particular vice above all others: procrastination. In fact, I’ve learned a lot about the psychology of procrastination because, rather than doing what I’m supposed to do, I often ask myself, “Why am I procrastinating?” Then, I ask Google the same question. Then it’s all over.

Procrastination is something everybody does from time to time. It’s a familiar three-step process:

  1. I feel pressure to complete this important task.
  2. I am now ignoring that pressure and completing an unimportant task instead.
  3. And now I feel even more pressure to complete the task, along with guilt for not having done it already.

Repeat until you have manufactured a crisis.

If you’re a manager, dealing with the procrastinators on your team can be nerve-wracking. “Yeah, I know there’s still a week until the deadline,” you tell Type-B Tommy. “But you haven’t even started yet.” Do you trust him to get the job done? Or do you insist on seeing milestones along the way? And why is he procrastinating in the first place?

Let’s tackle that last question first, and see if it reveals the answer to the other two.

For thousands of years, procrastination was simply viewed as a defect of character, a form of laziness or apathy. Cicero called procrastination “hateful,” and Perseus “unhappy.” My personal favorite comes from the Greek Stoic Epictetus, who offers us this distinctly passive-aggressive gem: “Anything worth putting off is worth abandoning altogether.” Not helpful, Epictetus.

The moralizing approach to procrastination doesn’t help because the procrastinator agrees that he should just do it. He isn’t apathetic. And he’s as mystified as you are by the gap between what he wants (to finish that project) and what he’s doing (watching a YouTube video of a guy who can balance a bike on a bowling ball).

Over the past 20 years, there’s been an uptick in research into the mechanism at work behind procrastination. What psychologists have found is that it has very little to do with what we’d traditionally think of as willpower–that is, forcing your higher-order will on your lower-order impulses.

In one study conducted at Case Western Reserve University, researchers gathered 40 students and assessed them for signs of chronic procrastination. Later on, they brought the students back to the lab for another session. They told the students that at the end of the session they’d be completing a math puzzle. The researchers told some of the students that this was a serious assessment of their cognitive ability. They told other students that the puzzle was just for fun. In the meantime, the students could prepare for the task, or mess around with video games and other distractions.

Well, wouldn’t you know it, the chronic procrastinators who thought they’d be getting a “serious cognitive assessment” frittered away the time playing Tetris while their more industrious peers studied. And the chronic procrastinators who thought the math puzzle was just for fun? They studied.

So does that mean you tell a chronic procrastinator, “Hey man, whether we complete this million-dollar order or not, it’s all good.” No, of course not. The lesson here is more complex.

What the researchers found was that procrastination is not a time-management problem. It’s an emotion-management problem. When a task induces worry or anxiety, the procrastinator quickly reasserts control of his emotional state, by redirecting his attention to something more pleasurable, downplaying the importance of the task, or convincing himself that he’ll be more ready at some point in the future. As the emotional consequences of this response build (in the form of guilt, regret, and increased anxiety), so does his effort to counteract them. At a certain point, usually the last minute, the only remaining tactic for asserting internal emotional control is to do the task, if it’s not too late.

Managing procrastinators

As a manager, it’s not your job to help an employee untangle this maladaptive self-soothing. You just want to make sure he does the work. So we return to our question about whether you trust him to complete the job, or insist on milestones. The short answer is both.

If it’s possible, assigning several small tasks with short-term deadlines is far more effective than assigning one large task with a long-term deadline. Aside from that, there are two approaches you’ll have to take. The first is offering positive reinforcement. This relieves some of the stress of an assignment, and by extension the desire to procrastinate. The other is to set and enforce deadlines. If the procrastinators on your team sense that your deadlines are a little squishy, they will push until they find the real one.

And if you’re a procrastinator yourself? There’s been plenty of research into self-management strategies: writing lists, making “pre-commitments” to yourself, blocking distractions. But if you’re a Stage 5 procrastinator, like the writer of this article, you already know none of that works. There is one thing that does, according to a study published in Personality and Individual Differences: self-forgiveness. Genuinely forgiving yourself for putting off a task can neutralize the guilt, regret, and anxiety that’s keeping you from coming back and getting it done.

Of course, you can always forgive yourself tomorrow, too.

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