We’ve all been there. You sit down at your desk, full cup of coffee at the ready, prepared to plow through a to-do list with the speed and efficiency of a superhuman machine. But you figure you’ll ease into it by checking the New York Times online. Then your coffee’s out, and you really can’t get work done without a second cup. You run into Bob in the office kitchen, ask about his weekend. He’s working on remodeling his kitchen, and you went through the same thing last summer and have a great contractor you can recommend…and all of a sudden it’s time to take lunch, and you figure there’s no sense in tackling the to-do list until after you refuel.
Everyone procrastinates at times, but procrastination in the workplace can be extremely debilitating and detrimental to productivity. Dr. Piers Steel, a pioneering professor in the study of procrastination, found that 95 percent of people surveyed admitted to occasional procrastination, while nearly 25 percent of survey takers fall prey to chronic procrastination[1. “The Procrastination Equation,” http://procrastinus.com/2015/05/11/717/]. Not surprisingly, the rates of chronic procrastination uncovered in this recent study are five times larger than those surveyed in the 1970s. Our habits of procrastination are getting worse, what with the limitless distraction of having everything at our fingertips in a digital world.
Dr. Steel theorizes that procrastination habits have been worsening for several decades because workers now have more opportunities to procrastinate, especially given that many jobs have become increasingly flexible. Business leaders can be particularly stricken by the desire to procrastinate since they have to juggle a myriad of tasks, and their day-to-day events can differ immensely.
How can business leaders gain control of their procrastination habits? Although this may seem counter-intuitive, one simple solution is simply to embrace procrastination itself. But, procrastination must be managed productively. As a business leader whose most important tasks keep falling off the to-do list due to pesky procrastination, adopting one or both of these two strategies can help.
Productive procrastination seems like an oxymoron, but there is truth behind this idea. Productive procrastination was introduced by Dr. John Perry, a life-long procrastinator. Dr. Perry observed that the more he procrastinated a certain task, the more things on his to-do list he got done. Those items might not have been the things he was supposed to be doing at that moment, but if an item is on a to-do list, that means it needs to get done eventually.
To maximize the power of procrastination, Dr. Perry recommends reordering your to-do list so that items that seem most important, but aren’t particularly urgent or have no firm deadline, show up at the top. A practiced procrastinator will normally try to avoid the item at the top of his or her to-do list by working on things that are a little farther down on the list. This method works because the tasks that are on the list’s second or third spot will actually be the tasks that need your most immediate attention. In a sense, you’re tricking yourself when you create this kind of structured to-do list. New York Times columnist John Tierney likens this scenario to the when people who are chronically five minutes late correct their behavior by setting their watches to run five minutes early[2. “This Was Supposed to Be My Column for New Year’s Day,” http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/15/science/positive-procrastination-not-an-oxymoron.html?_r=0]. Even though they are aware of the time change, their behavior changes accordingly. Rearranging your to-do list is one simple way to work smarter, instead of just harder.
Practicing this type of productive procrastination is also a great way to get to things near the bottom of your to-do list that you’ve deemed unimportant, but that could have a major impact on your business. For example, a former colleague of mine was a chronic procrastinator. He would put off doing things on the top of his to-do list by socializing more in the office and, most importantly, mentoring younger employees. You’d often find him at long lunches in the cafeteria building rapport and offering guidance to his eager mentees. The important tasks on his to-do list eventually got done, but his procrastination habits actually led to him developing a reputation as a caring leader who was deeply invested in the future of the company and its employees. Fostering talent and relationships in the workplace is a vital but often overlooked component of company success — and this colleague’s “productive” procrastination habits helped him focus on this often-ignored facet of building a positive workplace culture.
Alternately, some people may find that doing the opposite of the above can work too. Just like you were always told to eat your vegetables before you could have dessert, it can work in your favor to get to the hardest tasks first and put off the more enjoyable ones until later. If you arrange your to-do list with the tasks you know you’re most likely to procrastinate on scheduled for the morning, when most people tend to be more productive, you can get them out of the way during your peak performance hours. Not only that, instead of spending all day dreading the less pleasant tasks you still have to get to, you only dread them for an hour or two in the beginning of the day, and spend the rest of it happier and more productive.
Take a page out of novelist Raymond Chandler’s book for this next procrastination strategy. Chandler famously only had two rules when it came to getting his writing done: first, you don’t have to write, and secondly, you can’t do anything else. Chandler gave himself permission to procrastinate on his writing projects for as long as he’d like, but rule number two ensured that he’d usually get bored and start writing anyway.
Psychologist Roy F. Baumeister refers to this as the “Nothing Alternative.” Doing something is usually preferable to doing nothing, even if that something is a huge task on your to-do list that you’ve been putting off for ages. Employing the “Nothing Alternative” forces the procrastinator to actually get started on the project, and often simply “getting started” is the core issue to a procrastinator and the biggest hurdle to overcome.
To get the full effect of the “Nothing Alternative,” try reserving a meeting room just for yourself for an hour or two to really sink your teeth into a project; getting out of your regular office environment and into a more sparsely decorated meeting room will limit your distractions. Leave your smartphone at your regular desk (along with your laptop if you don’t need it to get started on your project). Without any gadgets and gizmos to feed your procrastination, boredom will soon set in — prompting you to finally get started on that project just to escape the grip of ennui!
For busy business leaders, procrastination could spell disaster since so many stakeholders rely on their leaders to move projects forward. Employing productive procrastination techniques could ease the burden on business leaders and help them finish their most important tasks, turning this often frowned upon habit into an effective tool for change. If you’re interested in learning more about how to revamp and reinvigorate your company through cultureship, get in touch! Contact our expert guides to get started today.