Tackle Procrastination at Work

January 07, 2015


As I type away on my keyboard, a persistent cold rain falls outside. I have no reason to leave my home office today. My calendar rests in an unusually appointment-free state. It’s an exercise “off day,” so there’s no need to visit my favorite running path. I’ve even checked the local movie listings and realized that I’ve seen virtually every movie in which I have even a mild interest. To my own surprise I find the absence of pressure (from impending assignments) and pleasure (from an outdoor break) has caused me to put off tackling this week’s blog addition.

Everyone puts off a task now and then. Dawdling becomes procrastination when we intentionally defer important activities—especially when we know the delay will make us worse off.

Procrastination at work can affect a new professional’s standing. Studies indicate that confident employees garner more respect at work as well as plum assignments. Unfortunately procrastinators often appear less than confident in their own abilities. Once procrastinators are assigned to work as part of a team, group leaders raise concerns about the impact the procrastinator has on other team members as well as on group projects. They know that one person’s delay too often impacts an entire project’s completion.

Whether you are a situational or a chronic procrastinator, adopting four best practices can help ensure you always address projects on time.


1. Best practice: break big projects into small tasks

An old joke goes something like this:

Q: How do you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

Procrastinators see the proverbial elephant, and rather than grab a knife and fork, they put off the meal, turn on a tablet, and binge-watch Netflix. Procrastinators can benefit by reframing projects. Instead of seeing one huge project with a target deadline in the distant future, they should divide projects into smaller, more defined units with a series of short-term deadlines.

I practice what I preach. Several years ago, I decided I wanted to participate in an organized swim from Manhattan to Brooklyn. When I set the goal, decades had passed since I had dipped one toe into a swimming pool. Instead of allowing the project to overwhelm me, I broke it into discernible “bites.” I gave myself one week to obtain a pool membership and a swimsuit. The very first day I entered the pool, I tested my ability and learned that I could take a total of four strokes, before I needed to stop and walk back to the end of my lane. I gave myself three weeks to swim the length of the pool. Then, I gave myself two more weeks to swim an entire lap. Before long, I strung multiple laps together. And after many months of training, I successfully swam the Brooklyn Bridge. 

Every time you accomplish one of your smaller tasks, reward yourself. In some cases procrastinators find these rewards to be just the motivation they need to propel them onward to their next task.


2. Best practice: schedule hard first

Procrastinators arrive at work with a very defined amount of energy and willpower. They especially benefit by reserving the first part of each workday for their toughest task. It won’t hurt to follow completion of that task with some reward.

“Schedule hard first” is one of the reasons so many fitness experts advise people who hate exercise to hit the gym early in the morning. They know that most people, by the close of the business day, can find a million-and-one reasons not to exercise, from I’m too tired to I’m too hungry to It’s too late and so forth.

Throughout the time they put off tackling tasks, procrastinators stress over the impact their actions have on the quality of their work as well the work of the teams to which they have been assigned. Procrastinators who attack their most critical task when they have the maximum amount of energy increase their odds of success.


3. Best practice: practice fartleking

As soon as you stop laughing, and if you’re not a runner, let me explain what a fartlek workout entails: after a warm-up, runners play with speed by alternating between fast sprints and relaxed, easy-effort recovery runs. When I do a fartlek workout, instead of hitting the pavement with the intent to finish my 6-mile run as fast as possible—for me that usually means a slow, deliberate run—I hit the road and run like crazy past five light poles, slow down to a nice gentle trot through the next five light poles, and then repeat.

You can use a similar technique at work. Once you understand the nature and requirements of a specific task, fartlek by working as fast as you possibly can for 10- to 15-minutes. Don’t be critical of any work you produce during that time. In many cases, perfectionism lies at the heart of procrastination. At the end of your 15-minute sprint through work, you likely will experience a sense of satisfaction and want to continue.


4. Best practice: clear the decks

Before heading into a skirmish, naval officers order their crews to “clear the decks.” This direction tells crew members to stow away any unnecessary supplies or equipment that might get in the way during an engagement.

Procrastinators must create an immediate work environment free of anything not necessary to the completion of their immediate task. They should stow away any distractions—photographs, mail, and other assignments—unrelated to the work at hand. Some procrastinators report that they are more easily distracted when they work in an office with windows or one that’s located in a high-traffic area. If you’re among them, ask to be reassigned to an office or workstation that will help you focus.

Be especially thoughtful when it comes to selecting work locations away from the office. Some people can put on the proverbial blinders and accomplish mountains of work at a local coffee shop. Others are readily distracted by the comings and goings of caffeine-deprived customers, the couple engaged in a heated conversation two tables away, background music, and the sounds that arise from the inevitable frothing of pitchers of milk.

If you are easily distracted, work in environments that help you stay focused.


What You Need To Know

Don’t let procrastination destroy your credibility. Learn how to tackle your most important priorities by breaking big projects into manageable tasks and rewarding yourself each time you cross a task off your running To-Do list.



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