The Crushing Effects Of Procrastination At Work

SUMMARY POINTS

> Procrastination is normal but it can have huge negative effects on your work life
> Manage your procrastination by first figuring out why you’re doing it
> Then, use simple tricks to refocus your attention and stay on track

“When will I fucking learn?!”

This is what you think to yourself every time you end up in this situation. Which, by the way, is often.

It’s D-Day. You have a huge project due this afternoon and, as you stare at your computer screen, it dawns on you just how much prep you still have to do.

You think back over all the unnecessary and less important tasks you busied yourself with to avoid doing this one, an important presentation that was meant to be your focus for the last couple of weeks.

There was the time that you started the presentation but then decided that you didn’t have enough information, so you went to have a ‘quick chat’ with your boss. Only to end up talking about everything but the presentation for over an hour.

Then there was that day when you decided you weren’t in the right headspace for the task at hand, and so you focused on easier things like cleaning up your inbox, organizing your folders and tidying your desk.

Even yesterday, when the big day was only 24 hours away, you decided that it was more important for you to get started on another project that doesn’t really require your focus until next week.

Why do you do this every time?!

Even as you wonder this to yourself, you realize that thinking back over all your lost time is just another form of procrastination.

Doh!

Okay, time to focus.

Oooh, but wait, there’s an email about Happy Hour!

Just a quick look...it’s an informal survey of where the next happy hour should be. And you know just the perfect place to recommend.

And down the rabbit hole you go.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone.

Procrastination plagues all of us, whether we’re putting off studying for an exam, having a difficult conversation with a colleague or finishing a priority project.

The more we put the task off, the more undesirable it seems. The longer we wait, the harder it is to find the motivation and just do it.

Even when we know we’re putting ourselves in a tight spot, we just can’t seem to shake the urge to do everything other than the very thing we need to do. It’s so damn hard now with the temptations of mindless media that’s only one new browser tab away or just a single touch of an app.

So, take comfort in the fact that procrastinating is normal. We all go through it. But, that doesn’t make it any less disruptive to our work and our lives.

When procrastination gets out of hand, it can have a huge negative impact on our growth, our progress and - ultimately - our wellbeing.

The good news is that there is hope for even the most cunning of procrastinators. With a few simple tricks, you can teach yourself to be the focused, efficient star pupil you always wanted to be.

What Counts As Procrastination?

Procrastination is basically when you put off an important task by keeping yourself busy with other bullshit things.

But sometimes, those other things need to be done too, so what difference does it make if you choose to do them when you’re meant to be writing that proposal or finishing up that Powerpoint?

A lot of the time when you procrastinate you’re still doing something, so it can’t be all that bad, right?

Actually, yes, this is true. Believe it or not, procrastinating can be a good thing - but that’s when it’s useful procrastination.

“Useful procrastination” usually means taking time away from a task to gain perspective, allow new ideas to flow or recharge your batteries.

Here’s a quick way to see if your spectacular avoidance skills are actually being a help rather than a hindrance:

The task you’re doing is something truly useful, for example, working on another urgent project.

You’ve reached a sticking point with the task or activity and need to take some time away from it to reflect or recharge.

The task you’re working on is creative or requires innovative ideas, and you’re engaging in the kind of procrastination that stimulates creativity, for example, play, meditation, conversations with others etc.

You don’t feel stressed about the task you’re avoiding and you feel you have enough time to get it done.

With useful procrastination, you should feel that you’re stepping away from an activity so that you can come back to it with more knowledge, energy or focus.

Now, time to be honest with yourself. Does this sound like the kind of procrastination you usually engage in?

Most of us are much more familiar with useless procrastination.

This involves doing literally anything but the very thing you need to do, and continuing to put it off hour after hour, day after day. If you’re engaging in useless procrastination, you will notice that:

> The tasks you’re doing instead are "shallow work" (more on that below) or useless and non-urgent tasks.

> You most likely haven’t even started the important task yet. 

> While you’re procrastinating, you keep getting pangs of guilt and regret, a reminder that you’re supposed to be doing something else. 

> The longer you leave the task, the more anxiety you feel about starting it and completing it on time. 

We can all relate to this.

For the purposes of this article, this kind of useless procrastination is what we want to beat because it’s effects are potentially far worse than we realize.

Shallow Work As Procrastination

One of the reasons procrastination comes so easily in the workplace is that we live in a society that places more value on productivity than efficiency.

When you’re being productive, you’re doing something. Anything. There’s an output. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re doing something useful, or doing it in the most time efficient manner.

Shallow work makes you feel productive, but it doesn’t actually add value.

If you rearrange your collection of business cards in alphabetical order, you’ve done something productive. But, was it an efficient use of your time?

If you keep ignoring that big hairy excel analysis that’s still “minimized” on your desktop, lurking in the background, then the answer is clear.

Shallow work includes tasks that need to be done eventually, but not urgently. For example, reading non-urgent broadcast company emails or recategorizing files and folders on your computer hard drive.

Shallow work is the opposite of deep work. Deep work is the stuff that you’re actually paid to do. It’s the core of your work, the stuff that makes a difference.

Deep work is usually challenging and difficult to replicate, requiring true and undistracted focus. And, unsurprisingly, it’s exactly this kind of work that we usually avoid with procrastination.

The Effects Of Useless Procrastination

Even though we know we shouldn’t procrastinate and we know we’ll end up regretting it, we still do it anyway.

Some people say they “work better under pressure” and to a certain extent that can be true. It’s what we call eustress or “good stress” where a bit of pressure gets you “in the zone” and keeps you focused at work.

Others say that procrastination is nothing more than mental and emotional barriers to overcome. It’s “all in your head” so to speak.

Well, they may be onto something.

This Ruhr University Bochum study found that people who procrastinate a lot tend to have a larger amygdala - the part of your brain that processes emotions, and have a weaker connection between the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex or DACC for short. The DACC uses information from the amygdala to decide what action the body will take.

The study concluded that people with larger amygdalas feel more anxious and, therefore, are more likely to put things off.

They also said that people with a weak connection between the amygdala and the DACC are less able to filter out interfering emotions and distractions. Meaning, they get all caught up in their feelings and thoughts.

Sound familiar?

So, your procrastination habit might not be entirely your fault after all.

But before you start using your large amygdala as an excuse for missing deadlines, there is another reason that we procrastinate, regardless of the make up of our brains.

Procrastination feels good! At least in the short term, that is.

As the saying goes, “Hard work pays off later, but procrastination pays off now.”

Usually, when we’re putting something off, it’s because it seems too hard or time consuming. This means that we would have to put in a lot of effort before reaping any benefits.

Human beings are pretty short-term focused, especially as our attention span gets lower and lower.

We’re living in the age of instant gratification where you can get pretty much anything delivered to your door in a jiffy and you can reach most people most of the time.

When we want something, we want it now. We don’t like to wait for results and rewards. This is where procrastination comes in.

Most activities we use to procrastinate give us some kind of reward quickly. When we’re completing other easier, less important tasks, we get a hit of dopamine once it’s done.

If we’re procrastinating by scrolling through our phones, going to the movies, hanging out with friends, boozing or eating, the reward there is clear.

Even when we procrastinate by doing nothing, we get a reward as our mind starts to slow down and put our body into rest and digest mode, where we feel calm and happy.

But these wonderful benefits are short-lived.

Once the initial reward starts to fade from memory, feelings of guilt and shame creep in. In addition to making us feel shitty, procrastination can really screw up our lives in a lot of ways:

1) It wastes time. And yet, we’re always complaining about how little time we have.

2) You miss opportunities. How many times have you meant to apply for a job or an award, kept putting it off, and then ended up missing the deadline?

3) It affects your self-esteem. If you’re a constant procrastinator, you probably end up producing work at a level much lower than what you’re capable of, which can affect your confidence and self-esteem.

4) It can affect your career. Procrastination at work won’t go unnoticed. If you gain a reputation as someone who always leaves things to the last minute or even misses deadlines, it won’t do your career any favors.

5) You won’t achieve your goals. Or at least not in the timeframe you could achieve them in.

6) Procrastinating makes you ill. There’s no doubt that procrastinating causes increased levels of stress and anxiety. Stress is the leading cause of so many chronic illnesses, including heart disease.

These are all pretty compelling reasons to nip this problem in the bud - and we’re here to help you do it.

Avoid Procrastination Like A Pro

The first step to overcoming procrastination is to figure out why you’re doing it in the first place through some self-analysis.

Depending on what we’re putting off, it could be for a range of reasons, and for each one, there’s a way to get yourself back on track.

So next time you notice yourself organizing the group lunch for next week, reading news, scrolling through your feeds or whatever it is that’s your fallback time-waster at work, check out the list below.

Reason: The task is overwhelming
Solution: Break down big tasks into smaller, more manageable sub-tasks

It can be pretty daunting staring at a blank screen and that incessantly blinking cursor when you have a monster project report to write-up. Who can blame you for playing Candy Crush instead?!

The solution here is to eliminate distractions as much as possible and break up your big task into smaller sub-tasks that are much easier to do.

Mark Manson, best selling author of the book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck", explains how you can stop procrastinating using those two tactics in this short 2.5 minute video clip.

VIDEO: How to Stop Procrastinating and Finally Get Work Done
YOUTUBE: Business Insider
LENGTH: 2:28

Summary points:
> Beat procrastination by managing your environment
> Don’t give your brain a chance to procrastinate
> Scale down the task to smaller tasks that are easier to tackle

Let’s expand on the idea of breaking down big projects into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Don’t get yourself all anxious about a big project by only seeing the huge task at hand. Instead, break things down into smaller sub-tasks that are much easier. Write them out and treat them as individual tasks, scheduling time to focus on them.

In fact, we’ve got a couple of downloadable worksheets that can help you with this task scheduling concept. You can get these and read more about them in our ultimate guide to “getting in the zone” at work.

You could also take it one step further and reward yourself each time you complete a task. It’s all part of something called Pomodoro sessions, which is covered in that same ultimate guide we mentioned above.

This is when it’s okay to watch that short cat video clip that’s so irresistibility cute.

And when you finish the big task, treat yourself to something a bit more meaningfully rewarding like a lavish coffee blend during lunch or a 15 minute walking stress break in the afternoon or a few of your fav TV episodes in the evening after work.

Reason: You’re a perfectionist
Solution: Done is better than perfect because ‘perfect’ doesn’t exist

When you’re a perfectionist it can be easy to avoid doing any task that you don’t believe you will do well.

Overcoming perfectionism is hard work and it’s an ongoing challenge. But there are a few tips that can help you on your way.

First, remind yourself that others most likely don’t hold you to the same unreasonably high standard you hold yourself to.

While you might ruminate over a spelling mistake in an email or a font error in a Powerpoint for weeks, the reality is that the person on the receiving end really doesn’t care.

Second, focus on being a perfectionist over your deadline rather than the work itself. Something that is done on time is better than something that is ‘perfected’ and really late.

Finally, remind yourself that there really is no such thing as perfect.

Whatever you do, you will always think of ways you could have done better or things you might have done differently. So, you may as well just get it done!

Reason: You’re easily distracted
Solution: Figure out your unique way to get in the zone

If you naturally succumb to distraction, you need to find a way to get yourself in the zone at work.

This means different things for different people but here are some ideas that you could try:

1) Turn off notifications on your computer. You don’t need to get a pop up for every new email when you’re trying to keep focus.

2) Turn off notifications on your phone - or better yet, turn it off completely!

3) Find a silent space. Maybe you need to lock yourself away in a meeting room to get the quiet you need to focus.

4) Get your headphones on. Some of us actually focus better with noise. You don’t have to listen to music - perhaps nature sounds or binaural beats will work better for you. You can even use sound to create the ambiance of a coffee shop if you think it will keep you more focused.

5) Use the pomodoro technique. This means you alternate between 25 minutes of focus on one task and then 5 minutes of rest. This works for some people as the time pressure of only having 25 minutes helps them to get in the zone.

Reason: Too many different tasks or multi-tasking
Solution: Prioritize and then mono-task your way through

If you find yourself jumping from task to task because you feel you have to in order to get everything done, it’s time for some prioritizing.

Multitasking is inefficient and it’s bad for you - in order to get more done and experience less stress while you’re doing it, focus on mono-tasking instead.

But how do you choose what to focus on with so much going on?

Check out the Eisenhower Matrix for help on laying out your tasks in order of priority.

To get even more efficient, try writing down your tasks at the end of the work day before you go home. Make it kind of like an end-of-day ritual to help you disconnect from work. It’ll allow your mind to let go of all the work bullshit for the night because the reminders will be there tomorrow.

Whatever your reason for procrastinating though, it’s important to remember to be kind to yourself.

As destructive as it can be, procrastination is also totally normal.

When you notice yourself doing it, don’t beat yourself up and berate yourself. Just catch yourself, and choose a tactic to help you refocus your attention.

You can draw on these ideas in different situations and, in no time, you’ll notice that instead of procrastination being your default coping mechanism, you turn to better ways of dealing with important tasks.

The Choice Is Yours

We’re not in the business of making promises we can’t keep. Procrastination isn’t something that’s disappearing from most of our lives any time soon. After all, we’re all genetically programmed to avoid or minimize doing things that suck or bring us pain.

The goal is to manage down the habit by spotting it before it takes full control of your brain. And then, using what works best for you to squash it and shut it down.

This awareness is your early warning system. It’s the space that gives you choice. It’s that slice of time, that brief moment when you can influence your brain to do what you really need to do before it flakes out on you.

Sometimes, you’ll choose to continue wasting away the time and that’s okay. Some days, our minds just won’t get into gear because it may need to zone out for a few minutes (or a few hours on a bad day) before getting fired up.

But other times, you’ll choose to do one of the actions above to refocus your attention and immediately start hammering away at work.

And those times, you’ll feel like an office superstar. You’ll get all the important shit done, on time, with minimum stress. You’ll be that person who turns work in ahead of the deadline.

And then, that glass of wine or ice cold beer at Happy Hour will taste that much better.

Your path to efficiency over productivity, calm over stress and done over perfect starts here and now.

So, thanks for reading this article. But, it’s time for you to get back to work.

Feel Better,
[Cubicle|Therapy]