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Dealing with procrastination at work

Understanding why people put things off

By Brian Kreissl

While I try to ensure it doesn’t affect my work life, I am occasionally guilty of procrastination in my personal life. However, I recently resolved to tackle my procrastination issues head-on by completing some projects I had been avoiding for months or even years.

I made a mid-year resolution to stop procrastinating and simply do what I need to do when I need to do it. In the past few weeks, I have completed some outstanding paperwork, pruned a tree in the backyard that was in danger of damaging our fence, tackled some painting projects, finally got some bloodwork done and made a doctor’s appointment I had been putting off for months.

It was great to get that sense of accomplishment and a feeling of tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders. As a reward to myself, I went to a craft beer festival with a friend.

So, why did I procrastinate in the first place?

People put things off for all kinds of reasons including laziness, other priorities, fear of failure, unwillingness to take on additional responsibility or being a perfectionist. I personally procrastinate because I fear other people’s unpleasant reactions. If I know someone is going to be highly critical of my work, for example, I’m less likely to start a project.

It often feels to me like when I finally do start certain projects, ironically, that’s when people start to give me a hard time. An example is my student loan, which took me a while to start paying off because I wasn’t earning very much right after university and was out of work for a few months. Yet, when I finally did start paying it off, that’s when I was given a hard time about how little I was paying.

Similarly, I avoid painting projects because my wife and I always seem to argue about them. If I am slow and meticulous I’m taking too long, but if I go a bit faster I get a hard time for not taking enough care. It often feels like I can’t win, so I avoid painting and actually make matters much worse for myself in the end.

Procrastination just makes bad situations even worse. In addition to their initial negative reactions (which may or may not actually materialize), people usually just end up getting even more annoyed when something ends up being late.

I finally decided that I needed to stop caring so much about other people’s reactions and trying to obtain their approval. If I’m satisfied that I’ve done my best and things were done in a timely manner, who cares what other people think?

Procrastination in the workplace

One of the reasons people can avoid having personal issues like procrastination spill over into their work lives is because most of us have distinct personalities at work and in our social lives. We all compartmentalize to a certain extent and are often somewhat able to leave our bad habits and personal issues at home.

But I’m more concerned about procrastination at work and what HR can do to help solve this problem among employees in their work lives. The fact is many people do procrastinate in their jobs, which can have a negative impact on productivity.

To be clear, I’m not talking about situations where people have so much work on their plates that they never get to certain tasks. I don’t personally believe that’s procrastination because putting something off when you basically don’t have any choice in the matter isn’t the same as avoiding a task because it’s unpleasant or you aren’t sure you possess the necessary skills to complete it.

Nevertheless, managers need to help employees prioritize, and HR can help through coaching and training. Paradoxically, I also believe sometimes it’s necessary to take time to complete less urgent or important tasks simply because they’re always going to be at the bottom of the list and they have to get done at some point.

Getting back to actual procrastination, managers need to be trained to recognize the signs of procrastination and some of the reasons why people procrastinate. Training managers to be supportive and instilling a culture of feedback, proper context setting and an appropriate level of risk taking is important. Employees should also be stretched to move beyond their comfort zones and be reassured that it’s all right if they don’t perform a task perfectly the first time.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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