A positive delay

July 24, 2018

Yes or no? Is procrastination a good thing? Chances are if you are like most people, you answered no. That is because we have been conditioned to believe that procrastination is a bad habit that needs to be broken. The truth is that procrastination can be an asset to your productivity when used wisely and with a concrete result in mind.

I once reported to a CEO and would create projects based on the conversation he just completed, or the newspaper article he read the evening before. I would jump right on the project, deliver it promptly, to find out he had forgotten about it. Getting smarter, I waited for him to raise the topic a second time before I considered acting on it. Over time, it became easier to determine which ideas were serious and deserved work time and which could sit on hold until they were mentioned again. That strategy saved hundreds of hours of time.

Procrastination is also a helpful strategy when there is a fluid, quickly-evolving situation. The Wall Street Journal on the phone? An executive accused of harassment? A fire in the plant? It can take time for facts to surface and conflicting details to unravel. Speaking too early without facts can backfire and make a situation worse. In these fast-moving situations, with people clamoring for answers, it is most helpful if you remain calm, focus on the overall situation, and decide from whom you will get the facts and when you will be available to provide a considered response.

A third strategic use of procrastination is at the beginning of a major project. Often, new managers panic when given a large assignment with a tight timeline. They feel they should drop everything and begin immediately. That is not the most productive response. I constantly remind myself if I do not have time to plan, I do not have time to do the job. Taking time to see the big picture— why is this project important; how will this help the company; what difference can this make in reaching a target market or a financial metric—helps you narrow your focus to the information that matters and drives the best potential solutions.

The other side of the coin, when not to procrastinate, is more emotionally-laden and gives procrastination its bad reputation. Research tells us there are two main reasons for procrastination that result in unhealthy behavior: fear of success and the second, far more prevalent cause, fear of failure. Studies have repeatedly shown that when people are confronted with an assignment that could bring increased visibility or promotion, they are often stopped in their tracks.

Many managers hesitate at the idea of tackling an important assignment. They worry that their schedules are already overly filled: they do not want the extra work likely to come their way with success. They like the status quo. Success might mean upsetting the boss, reassignment, promotion, or hitting the top of the pay range with nowhere else to go except out. Most ambitious employees and managers work through these feelings very quickly. That is why this is the smaller pool. There is a difference between those that truly do not want to be the turtle with its head stuck outside its shell and those that are merely exhibiting short-term panic. As a manager, it is critical to know the difference. You can assure the reluctant turtles that this is a special assignment without repercussions for change, while you provide encouragement to those who are temporarily timid.

When people talk about procrastination being problematic, they are almost always considering the procrastinator who exhibits a fear of failure. Overwhelmingly, research shows that this is the largest group of those that procrastinate. It is this group that exhibits the most creativity in the manner of procrastination, offers the most varied excuses, and earns the anger of co-workers, team project members, and managers. It is this procrastinator who deserves management attention.

Fear of failure is real and wired into our genes. Our flight or fight response hails from the time when man was vulnerable in the raw physical environment. When we enter any encounter that feels strange or frightening, that same reaction occurs releasing adrenaline, enabling us to either run fast or fight hard. It is this adrenaline rush that allows a solitary man to lift a car off a traffic victim or carry a victim twice one’s weight down several flights of stairs in a burning building. This is adrenaline usage at its finest. But when the fear is triggered by a vague, faceless, amorphic ‘thing’, the adrenaline slowly works itself out of one’s system leading to symptoms such as lethargy or hunger that cause efficiency and productivity to decrease.

This fear of failure is usually self-induced and worst-case scenarios imagined. I once had an outstanding strategic planning consultant tell me that the first time she was asked to craft a strategic plan, she was physically ill. She was positive she could not handle this challenge: she was too inexperienced, too unknown to the team, too new to the industry. She was certain she would be fired, would never find another job, and would end up living on the street in later life. That sounds extreme, but I have heard variations of this story many, many times. Fear is a paralyzing force, preying on our minds causing irrational thought and inappropriate reactions. The paradox is that while procrastinating, we think we are delaying the failure when we are setting a destructive pattern that is much more likely to result in failure.

As business people, we need to recognize that there are as many ways to exhibit fear of failure as there are people who experience it. While we are not trained as therapists, part of any manager’s job is to recognize this fear and find constructive, appropriate ways to minimize its more debilitating effects.

The single most effective and most basic strategy is to use accountability as the weapon of choice in this fear fight. By determining clear objectives, quantitative metrics, and time-framed outcomes, the procrastinator loses the ability to make excuses. If you reviewed the required work products on the timeline established, then it makes it far less likely the procrastinator will have to use any excuse. She will already be on the way to achievement. If you add in quality feedback, then it makes rework less likely and helps reduce the excuses.

For those whose procrastination is a lifestyle constant, the solution calls for a different strategy. It may take a skilled professional to get to the root of the reasons for procrastination. If the procrastinator is willing to work on these issues, then time is needed as well as a measure of patience. If there is continued lack of improvement, then the most helpful thing for all involved is to engage the discipline process outlined in the company’s personnel policies. Once managers and leaders recognize the damage chronic procrastination can have on morale, team motivation, productivity, operating effectiveness, and group efficiencies, it becomes no different than dealing with tardiness, safety violations, or other company offenses.

Now, what is your answer? Is procrastination good or bad?



* https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2016/03/why-procrastination-might-be-a-good-thing/