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Procrastination plagues many of us. It seems we are endlessly creative at avoiding things that we know are important. This week we explore different ways to think about and avoid procrastination.
Hello and welcome to episode 100 of the Leadership Today podcast where each week we bring research to life in your leadership. This week we explore different ways to think about and avoid procrastination.
Procrastination plagues many of us. In fact, research suggests that around 25% of people have procrastination as a defining personality trait. But whether you procrastinate all the time or just every so often, I’m sure you would love to procrastinate a little less.
And that’s not surprising, particularly given that procrastination is associated with a range of negative outcomes including low self-esteem, high pessimism, high anxiety, boredom, fatigue and detachment.
One definition of procrastination is “voluntarily delaying an intended task despite expecting to be worse off for doing so”. This highlights a few key aspects of procrastination:
It’s voluntary - procrastination is something that we choose to do
It gets in the way of our intentions - despite wanting to do one thing, we introduce something else as a replacement, even if that replacement is just staring at the ceiling
We know it will make things worse - procrastination never makes things easier, and we typically know that at the point we choose to procrastinate
So given all of this, why do we procrastinate? Researchers describe procrastination as “a form of self-regulation failure involving the unnecessary and voluntary delay of important tasks for the purpose of short-term mood repair.” Put simply, procrastination is about prioritising short-term mood repair over long-term goal pursuit. We procrastinate because it makes us feel better in the short-term. In fact, research demonstrates that the more negative our mood, the more time we spend procrastinating. We use procrastination to feel better. Understanding this can help us to reduce how often we procrastinate. Once we recognise that we’re actually delaying and amplifying negative mood, we can appreciate just how self-defeating procrastination can be. In addition, we can look for ways to boost our mood prior to undertaking a task where we think there is a risk of procrastination. Schedule those tasks where procrastination is a risk at the points of your day when your mood is typically most positive.
I think it’s also important to consider how you think about procrastination. Consider someone who says “I am a procrastinator” versus another person who says “I procrastinate”. The person who describes themselves as a procrastinator sees procrastination as an ongoing trait, part of their personality, and part of who they are. For that person to overcome procrastination requires a change of identity, not just a change of thoughts, feelings and behaviour. In contrast, the person who says “I procrastinate” sees procrastination as a passing state, that it is task-specific, and that it is how they act sometimes. In that case overcoming procrastination requires a change of thoughts, feelings and behaviour, but not a change in how the person sees themselves. If you want to reduce how often you procrastinate, start by thinking about procrastination as something you choose to do, rather than something that defines who you are.
We often fail in making meaningful change because we try to stop procrastinating rather than trying to pursue the opposite of procrastination. The opposite of procrastination isn’t just getting things done on time, it’s actually a state that psychologists call flow. Flow is a positive state which feels great, where time flies, where we can focus our attention, and adapt and be flexible. How do we achieve flow? A lot of it comes down to how we are led. People are more likely to achieve flow in their work when there are clear goals, flexibility or autonomy in how we achieve those goals, and immediate feedback. But we also need to be challenged and have our abilities matched to the task. As so often is the case, flow requires an environment where we are stretched and supported.
If you struggle with procrastination, here are some things to try:
Choose to be stretched in an area of interest - boredom increases the risk of procrastination, so we want to focus on tasks that are interesting to us
Set goals and deadlines to work towards - we prioritise and work harder to achieve tasks that have a deadline, so use that to your advantage
Boost your mood before you begin - go for a walk around the block or some other mood-boosting activity before you tackle that activity you typically put off
Turn off wifi or pull out the blue cable - our computers provide a myriad of tempting distractions, so do whatever you can to reduce these
Involve others for encouragement, mentoring and feedback - it’s harder to procrastinate when others are checking in on you and holding you accountable
Work in bursts - set a timer for 15 minutes and start working, then assess how you’re going at the end of that time - you will usually find you’re happy to then invest another 15 minutes
Hopefully today’s podcast has given you some new ways to think about procrastination and some ideas about how to avoid it in the future. If you have used today’s podcast to avoid doing something else, then just go and do it now!
If you enjoyed this week’s podcast and want to go a bit deeper, I have a free webinar happening this week called “A Procrastinator’s Guide”. If you can’t make the webinar or have missed it, don’t worry. We publish recordings of all of our webinars on the Leadership Today On-Demand service. Just go to the leadership.today website and follow the on-demand link to sign up for a free 30 day trial.
As usual, you will find all of the research used for today’s episode in the show notes. Thanks again to our researcher Lauren Staveley for scouring journals to track all of that down.
And given we have hit the 100 episode mark, I would really appreciate it if you could take some time to provide a rating and review via Apple Podcasts, and also tell a friend about the podcast. That makes a huge difference. Have a great week.
Göncü Köse, Asli & Metin, Baran. (2018). Linking Leadership Style and Workplace Procrastination. The Role of Organizational Citizenship Behavior and Turnover Intention. Journal of Prevention & Intervention Community. 46. 10.1080/10852352.2018.1470369
Sirois, F.M. and Kitner, R. (2015) Less Adaptive or More Maladaptive? A Meta-analytic Investigation of Procrastination and Coping. European Journal of Personality, 29 (4). 433 - 444. ISSN 0890-2070
Sirois, F.M. (2014) Procrastination and Stress: Exploring the Role of Self-compassion. Self and Identity, 13 (2). 128 - 145. ISSN 1529-8868
van Eerde, W., Klingsieck, K.B., Overcoming Procrastination? A Meta-Analysis of Intervention Studies, Educational Research Review (2018), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.edurev.2018.09.002
van Eerde W., Procrastination at Work and Time Management Training. The Journal of Psychology (2003), 137 (5), 421-434