According to a study undertaken by management consulting firm Proudfoot Consulting, the time cost of unproductive workers amounted to almost 33 days per worker per year. The projected monetary cost of lost production in the United States is $598 billion per year. Now, add to that the fact that 80%-90% of our future workforce (students) identify themselves as procrastinators and 1 in 5 adults (those who are currently in the workforce) also identify as procrastinators, and that will give you a sense of the enormity of the problem.
To understand the crux of this, we need to understand what we really mean by ‘procrastination’. Several people have defined ‘Procrastination’ in different ways, but probably the most simple, yet wholesome way to understand it was given by Porcee R. and colleagues in 2013: “The voluntary delay of an intended, necessary and/or important activity, despite, expecting potential consequences that outweigh the positive consequences of the delay.” But, that is not the extent of all the patterns-of-behaviour that make up the constructs of ‘Procrastination’. Many psychologists have attributed the act to issues like low self-confidence, a lack of self-control, anxiety, weak time management or simply an inability to motivate yourself. Procrastination is of different types. But, only two are relevant to our discussion: Active Procrastination and Passive Procrastination.
Active Procrastination involves being able to finish tasks before a deadline. But, tasks/actions are suspended deliberately till they become imminent. Most active procrastinators identify with statements such as, “I work better under pressure”, “I know I’ll finish it once the pressure is on!” As oppose to Active Procrastination, Passive Procrastination is how we traditionally understand all procrastinators to be. Passive procrastinators are the ones who find themselves always postponing tasks, going beyond deadlines and they are usually unable to make timely decisions.
Identifying as a Procrastinator
Here is where your identity plays a role. Procrastination has played a role in human society for time immemorial. But, only in today’s society have we started accepting the idea of procrastination being a natural choice. Earlier, if you said that you are a Procrastinator people around you would have told you a thousand reasons why it is ‘abnormal’ and how you need to use your ‘willpower’ to stop it. Today, if you say you are a ‘procrastinator’, your colleagues will most likely sympathise or empathise with you and understand that to be your ‘way of working’.
So, what changed? Over a period of time more and more people have started feeling comfortable coming out of the proverbial closet and calling themselves ‘Procrastinators’. Modern society has also understood that ‘Procrastinators’, the term, doesn’t just talk about Passive procrastinators, but also active procrastinators. With this, the phenomenon has normalised in today’s society. This is not to discount the role of technology in making the modern population more susceptible to procrastination, but for the purposes of this article, we won’t be taking it into account.
Eradicating Procrastination? Procrastination affecting the Career Trajectory of an Individual
From the above discussion, most people would surmise procrastination to be a ‘bad’ thing. But, Procrastination is not wholly bad. In fact, one would be amiss to not look at how Procrastination has correlations with many great endeavours showing human creativity (If interested, you can read ‘Leonardo da Vinci: The biography review- portrait of an easily distracted genius’). The issue is, how do we differentiate the ‘good’ parts of Procrastination from the ‘bad’ ones? Is it at all possible to do that? And if it is, how can we go about it?
Theoretically, it should be possible to separate the two. But that would require getting a lot of data in 2 areas: 1) What is the optimum level of Procrastination? 2) How will we control procrastination past that level? There is a lot of research going on in the second area but the first one is also just as important (so that we don’t end up throwing the baby out with the bath water).
One of the reasons many people allow passive Procrastination to rule their lives is as a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have started labelling themselves as a procrastinator because they read/watch about it somewhere and now they make themselves fit into that category more and more to identify with that type socially. Also, if you identify yourself as a procrastinator, people around you tend to take things easy on you. The phenomenon is very similar to how when you say you have a headache people around you tend to soften your load. Then you get into the habit of saying you have some medical problem or the other in order to avoid work.
This is not to say that procrastination isn’t a real problem, it is! And many people around the world suffer from it. But it is important to recognise that the reason we try to use labels to identify the syndrome is to help the people suffering from it by targeting behaviours associated with the syndrome. It is not meant to make a typology of behaviours where one needs to ‘fit in’, rather it’s a typology from where one should strive to find their way out.
Here, one should ask themselves, if identifying as a Procrastinator has benefits such as lesser workload and a social identity, why should one strive to lose the association with that identity. One should do so because of the negative repercussions one suffers due to the association. Just because your peers will accommodate you does not mean that your superiors or your evaluators will ‘take it easy’ on you because of your identity. Many procrastinators (particularly, passive Procrastinators) mention this issue during interviews. They feel that their work always suffers and everyone other than themselves are always climbing up the ladder while they are stuck in a vicious cycle which prevents their progress.
Active Procrastinators on the other hand usually do not suffer from a lack of progress, and their work also, usually, meets high standards that are expected of them. They suffer in terms of their health. They always push things to the point where they find themselves always working in high stress environment. This leads to them developing conditions associated with chronic stress, such as, high anxiety, cardiovascular syndromes etcetera.
On an Individual Level, one can do the following:
- Start by identifying the behaviours that you use to procrastinate. It can involve napping, consuming social media or other forms of distractive activities (this can even involve focusing on low priority tasks to avoid the high priority ones).
- Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past
Then one can try applying the following techniques to prevent distractive behaviours and increase productive ones. These involve:
- Pomodoro technique
- Making Checklists
- Breaking down of tasks to actionable schedules
- Always reward yourself for smallest of accomplishments
At organizational level, it may be more of an engagement issue, versus a clear cut issue around laziness or ill-discipline. The following strategies can be explored and implemented:
- Breaking down of larger projects into smaller, measurable chunks prior to allocation to individuals
- Assigning deadlines to be close to each other
- Allowing for moderated distractions in a controlled setting: this can involve implementation of flexible workspaces, communal areas for people to talk, and (as Google peruses) allowing 15%-20% time for personal projects.
- Stress management initiatives such as community yoga, allowing for some leisure time for employee’s etcetera.
- Self-help groups for those who genuinely identify as procrastinators.
At the very end, organisations should remember, compassion goes a long way, it is important to reflect to your workforce that you understand the problem of procrastination and do not wish to penalise them for the same. Rather, you are there and will be there for them, to help them out of it.