If you are guilty of procrastination at work, perhaps there is comfort in knowing that you are not alone. One of the greatest artists in our history books, Leonardo Da Vinci, allegedly procrastinated for 16 years before finishing the ‘Mona Lisa’. Clearly, Leonardo experienced a different work era where time was your friend, not your enemy.

Fast forward to 2022, and it appears procrastination has crept its way into our offices and spread like wildfire. Look around your workplace and you will see some obvious ‘procrastinators’ who look incredibly busy shuffling papers and responding instantly to emails when they should be on the final page of the monthly report. Or perhaps they are less obvious to spot because they convincingly announce that they ‘work best under pressure’. Psychologists see this thought process as a cognitive distortion where reality is incorrectly distorted.

Two main types of workplace procrastination

Workplace procrastination is bad for productivity, engagement, teamwork and hitting key targets. Left unchecked, it can be a costly workplace behaviour. It should be noted that employees who procrastinate are generally not trying to do the wrong thing, but rather it may be an indicator of anxiety, fear of failure, or pure lack of competence in a task.

1. Online workplace procrastination

Sometimes this is referred to as ‘cyberslacking’. Those who fall into this category will find themselves ‘stuck’ in a task and will pick up their phone to browse social media, read the news or message a friend. They use the technology to distract them and pass the time away from the ‘dreaded work activity’.

2. Offline workplace procrastination

This type of procrastination is sometimes also referred to as ‘soldiering’. Employees who soldier while procrastinating without online devices. They are commonly seen taking long or excess breaks, chatting in the staff room, daydreaming, or walking around talking to colleagues.

Is workplace procrastination common?

Workplace procrastination cannot be picked by role type but rather by the personality type of the incumbent. Arguably, procrastination begins at school, where maths homework is shoved to the side to work on a group art project. Research indicates that procrastination is prevalent in entry level roles right up to senior executives but it is more common in white collar positions.

It should be noted that two workers in the same role will not necessarily show the same level of procrastination. This is due to internal factors such as an individual’s ability to self-regulate their own behaviour, and external factors like how happy they are at home or the relationship that they hold with their manager.

In addition, a worker may not procrastinate at all in the morning but may be a heavy procrastinator in the afternoon when energy levels decline. It is helpful for leaders to understand the triggers for workers so that they can maximise work output at the right time of day.

Is workplace procrastination really such a bad thing?

If we procrastinate from time to time, is it really a problem? The short answer is yes! Workplace procrastination has a broad range of negative impacts for both the employee and the organisation.

Negative impacts for the employee

Workplace procrastination is associated with the following negative effects for the employee:

  • low job performance, which may impact salary and reward
  • lower tenure in each position
  • reduced workplace opportunities for development or progression
  • increased mental health issues due to stress and emotional exhaustion
  • difficulty in finding alternative employment.

 Negative impacts for the organisation

Workplace procrastination is associated with the following negative effects for the organisation:

  • reduced productivity, output and sales
  • lower employee performance
  • slow employee development and agility to learn
  • missed deadlines
  • low quality work or an increase in errors
  • increase in low morale and a lack of collaboration.

5 easy steps to minimise workplace procrastination

Most employees will need more than one technique to minimise procrastination in the workplace and like any skill, it takes dedication, time, and practice. The following are some key tips to minimise procrastination.

1. Ensure you have set concrete goals

Hold yourself accountable to clear goals that outline not only the due date but the time of day and actions within the task. Go one step further and share this goal with peers to keep you on track.

2. Seek coaching and support

Procrastinators can pick fellow procrastinators a mile off and also identify those who just buckle down and get the job done. Seek out support from non-procrastinating peers and ask them for coaching tips on how they meet deadlines with ease.

3. Reflect on the real issue

Are you a time waster at heart who prefers socialising over success, or is the real issue that you lack confidence or skill to complete the required task? Be brave enough to open the conversation with your manager as together you may discover that the root of the problem is that you actually need more of a challenge!

4. Try the ‘Pomodoro Technique

The ‘Pomodoro Technique’ is a time management system that encourages  focus with the time that you have. You decide what you want to accomplish and how long the work will go for. Then break the work into ‘pomodoros’ and set a timer for 25 minutes. Start working before enjoying a five minute break.

5. Chunk the work down into manageable steps

Large projects can be overwhelming with no clear light at the end of the tunnel. Break it down into core tasks and success pillars, to enable momentum to be built. Avoid leaving the perceived ‘hard part’ until last when energy is depleted. Most importantly, know when to leverage support from co-workers when a part of the task is not your key strength. They may just do the same for you!

Procrastination does not necessarily equal bad intent

It is important that leaders try to support workers to avoid procrastination; rather than put measures in place that force them to do so. Most people procrastinate because there is a larger concern at play or they do not have the skills to eliminate it.

It is often driven by exhaustion, self-doubt, or fear of failure; all of which strong leaders should be seeking to unpack and support over turning to judgement and discipline. Understanding the cause is a key step to building healthy new habits that bring results, build confidence, and put procrastination aside for good.

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Georgina Pacor

Georgina is Senior Content Writer and HR Specialist – Publications at Ai Group. She is an accomplished Human Resource professional with over 25 years of generalist and leadership experience in a broad range of industries including financial services, tourism, travel, government and agriculture. She has successfully advised and partnered with senior leaders to implement people and performance initiatives that align to business strategy. Georgina is committed to utilising her experience to create resources that educate and engage and is passionate about supporting members to optimise an inclusive workforce culture that drives performance.