Procrastination masks other problems: don’t put off finding and dealing with them

Posted on Written by Mary Elston

Mary ElstonWhat started as a gorgeous, sunny day had evolved into gloomy, stormy mayhem — lightning and hail included. Equally distressing was that activity at work had taken a similar, unsettled direction; there was a disturbance in the force.

Whether outside or in, it was a rough ride. How did it happen, the hail or tough day? OK, both. Produced by intense thunderstorms formed in an unusually unstable air mass, hail occurs when strong winds push rain upward, where extremely cold air super-cools the water, causing it to freeze into spheres of ice. Got that? Great. Now begin with an upbeat day shining across numerous players collaborating to create a critical document to close a deal — something they regularly do. Easy peasy, right? Usually, but in this instance it wasn’t; instead, it was hail.

In our case the unstable air mass was the inconsistent ability of selected players to deliver, causing problems to pour in. The document deadline was miserably missed, contributing to the perfect storm. Like lightning, it all blew up. We quickly learned that a pivotal part of the process had been plundered because of a single person’s decision to do one thing — procrastinate. We’ve all either been the occasional procrastinator or frustrated co-worker obliged to put up with it. What makes people procrastinate and how can you, as a manager, help minimize it? Should we talk now or later? Just kidding … let’s get to it.

Who are they? Procrastinators are those who delay or avoid doing things, preventing them from completing tasks on time. I was curious to discover that ”20 percent of all people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. They don’t pay their bills on time and leave Christmas shopping until Christmas Eve. This is a learned behavior and therefore can be unlearned.” (Psychologytoday.com, Ending Procrastination, by Hara Estroff Marano).

Although most are not persistent procrastinators, even infrequent foot-draggers can be the Achilles’ heel to super-motivated, punctual people. Pokey performers inflict stress on themselves and others and impose extra work on colleagues who are pressed to pick up the slack. Many procrastinators are profoundly skilled at hiding from managers until a major objective slips.

Why do they procrastinate? Although nearly everyone periodically procrastinates, I’ve noticed three main reasons procrastination occurs: fear, discomfort or lack of value. Each has fascinating facets.

FEAR: Panic-induced procrastination is triggered by fear of failure or terror of success. Distress caused by success comes from being compelled to take on the new responsibilities and challenges that achievement brings. The fear factor also applies for those practicing decision-making avoidance and dreading the unknown. This is common when dodging doctor’s appointments for fear of hearing the diagnosis. Yes, these people frequently come across as lazy, too. Vigilant supervisors may sense when anxiety causes a team member to delay and miss due dates, making it important to touch base with the employee to determine what’s holding him or her back.

DISCOMFORT: On Planet Procrastination, discomfort is fear’s close friend. Apprehension typically occurs when people are not proficient at an assignment, lack knowledge needed to perform the job, are embarrassed to appear inadequate or physically cannot execute what’s expected. With our document production failure, it turned out that the worker had not been trained in the process, making knowledge scarcity and related discomfort an impeccable opportunity to procrastinate.

Angst also can come from having to do things the procrastinator doesn’t like. I have a former colleague who loves to construct complex spreadsheets, while others loathe it. Whether insufficient instruction or not inherently expert for the job … Hate the occupation? Hello, procrastination! Leaders can help reduce a procrastinator’s discomfort by providing timely training and placing people in roles matching their talents. Workers must speak up and request learning options, as well.

LACK OF VALUE: When lack of value is in play, procrastinators have not assigned significance, benefit or consequences to getting work done. Lack of value translates to lack of action. A perverse inversion of this can likewise be true. I previously worked at a firm where a leader always waited until the last minute to respond to major bids. He saw no value in planning ahead.

Alternatively, he would proudly announce we had only 36 hours to deliver a big proposal and needed to work through the night to finish — he was an adrenaline and Red Bull junkie. The value in procrastinating was the pressure it produced to get things done under ridiculously constrained schedules. Unhealthy in regular doses — much like the caffeine overload he thrived on.

Managers need to monitor where employees perceive that their duties lack value and amend assignments to include purpose and meaning, along with a clear view of the significance of each person’s contribution to the broader picture.

How can a person stop procrastinating? True procrastinators look for ways to distract themselves from undertaking duties. You know who you are. What are proven remedies for pulling yourself out of the pit of perpetually postponing what needs to be performed? Eileen Bailey offers several effective approaches on Healthcentral.com (Ten Ways to Reduce Procrastination).

A sampling includes:

  • Plan your week before it starts. Every Sunday evening, write a list of targets, meetings and goals for the week ahead; cross each one off when it’s done.
  • Use your internal clock. Work on important duties during the part of the day when your productivity is at its peak, such as the morning if you’re a morning person.
  • Alternate tasks. Complete an activity you enjoy before doing work you don’t look forward to, then do another chore you enjoy afterward, presenting a runway and landing of accomplishment and good feelings before and after the work you don’t prefer. This gives your day more balance.
  • Break down large chores. Don’t overwhelm yourself with big efforts; break them down into smaller pieces that can be completed and checked off the list.
  • Provide rewards. Each time you achieve something, reward yourself in a small way, such as taking a short break, making a quick call to a friend or grabbing a fresh cup of coffee.

How did our dreary day come to a conclusion? The crucial paper was eventually delivered more than a week late. Because the person involved did not know how to generate it — leading to his procrastination — we encouraged him to request training that he overlooked on this vital process. He gladly did. We likewise determined that other players in the scenario had stumbled over key steps and held a post-mortem on the entire program, calling out mistakes made and corrections needed.

When it comes to procrastination, managers will find it’s often a symptom of a larger or related problem. This might include lack of instruction, an employee in the wrong role, the absence of meaningful goals, a shortage of skills or broken or unrealistic processes that require review and refreshing.

Do you have a sporadic or permanent procrastinator in your group? Restore order. Take a deeper look and figure out what’s causing the cloudy performance. Avoid the next potential hailstorm associated with procrastination and missed deadlines and watch work turn into a more consistent series of sunshiny experiences for everyone.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at mary@masteryoursuccess.com.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue.

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