How to Overcome Procrastination at Work

We have all procrastinated. We set a goal to accomplish a task, only to be distracted by something less important. It’s easy to put off the thing we don’t want to do for the thing that really doesn’t need to be done. Before we know it, we are rushing like crazy to meet a deadline, or, even worse, we miss it entirely.

Do you ever consider how much time you spend procrastinating? It’s typically longer than the actual work would take. We delay the inevitable because it feels like too much work, or we feel a sense of dread in doing it. Imagine what we could accomplish with the time and brain space freed up after accomplishing a task instead of hunting for every excuse not to do it.

Procrastination, or the art of perpetual delaying, comes from the Latin verb procrastinare, defined as “to put off until tomorrow.” But this goes beyond our choice to delay efforts. The word is also derived from the ancient Greek word akrasia which means “doing something against our better judgment.”

Procrastination is the key thing that differentiates people with influence from those who don’t have it. Influential people do the work. They show up every day, without excuses, ready to put forth the effort to get a job done, improve their skills or rise to the next level. They bring a positive attitude to each day and see opportunity in everything. Procrastinators, on the other hand, put off the work necessary to accomplish tasks. They are perceived as lacking self-awareness or motivation. Many think procrastinators are lazy and poor time managers. In reality, procrastinators live in a state of negativity: They dread work and effort. As a result, they lack the influence to get a promotion, land a new job, guide a team to success or accomplish greatness.

Studies show that procrastination is really negativity in disguise. Dr. Piers Steel, a motivational psychology professor at the University of Calgary, said in a New York Times interview that procrastination is a form of self-harm. If we know delaying makes us feel bad, why do we voluntarily do it?

In the same New York Times article, Dr. Fuschia Sirois, a professor of psychology at the University of Sheffield, described procrastination as an irrational behavior that people engage in when they don’t know how to manage a negative feeling they have about a task.

That negativity comes across in your communication with others – your choice of words, body language and everyday presence. It causes doubt in others who hear your words and witness your day-to-day choices. Ultimately, people respond to you, your requests and ideas with the same lack of urgency. If others witness your ongoing delay tactics, they will respond in kind. If you wait around for people to call you back, answer your emails, accept your meeting invites or deliver on deadlines, it’s because you lack the influence to get them to act.

It’s not too late. If you’re a “why do today what you can do tomorrow?” type of person but see the need for change, here are five ways to make a proactive effort.

Procrastination costs us valuable time and energy that could be invested elsewhere. Despite knowing this, we go against our better judgment to put off our work. When you choose to do the work, you’ll use your energy in a productive manner and feel accomplished afterward. Best of all, you’ll be investing in your own reputation, your credibility and the trust others have in you. Think of time like money: You can spend it frivolously here and there without real focus or accountability, or you can invest it in ways that pay dividends.

2. Know your “why.” 

Deciding to change your procrastination habits is easy, but doing it takes hard work and consistency. Your bad habits didn’t develop overnight, and neither will the improved habits you want. The easiest way to stay focused is to know your “why.” Perhaps you want to change because you want a promotion, a raise or more influence in the workplace. Focus on your “why” and commit to doing the work now.

3. Begin with the end in mind. 

Begin each day determining one thing you can do to become a more effective communicator. Perhaps it’s shortening your response time on emails and phone calls. Maybe it’s arriving on time for meetings. Whatever it is, choose one objective each morning to focus your efforts on throughout the day. Commit to accomplishing your daily goal in a timely fashion, without delay.

4. Commit to your calendar. 

Set aside chunks of time throughout the day to focus on tasks you would otherwise put off. Commit to those timeframes as you would a meeting with a client or your boss. Take it seriously, working with focus and commitment throughout the scheduled time. Mark your calendar, silence your phone, and set aside anything that may distract you. Focus all your efforts on accomplishing what you can. Over time, this will rewire your brain to know what is expected and how to operate best.  

5. Reward yourself. 

One downfall of procrastination is that we often seek something else to do so we don’t have to accomplish our task. We waste our time and expend energy on what doesn’t matter. We end the day wondering what we accomplished and where our time went. Worse still, we frustrate others with our inability to focus and get done what is necessary.

One way to change your mental programming is with simple rewards. This is known as temptation bundling. For instance, if you dread responding to emails and are known for taking days to get back to others, commit time each day to focus entirely on emails. When you’re done, reward yourself with something – a short walk, a phone call with a friend, a few minutes of “you” time that allows your mind to make a positive connection. The biggest reward will come over time as people begin to see your efforts, trust you will respond in a timely manner and allow you to influence their actions accordingly.

We are in control. We have the power to do the work to change our procrastination tendencies. It requires identifying the negative moods we attribute to specific tasks and challenges to stop resisting the change necessary for us to be taken seriously at home and at work.

Now is the time to realize that the reward of influence, credibility, and trust far outweighs the pain of putting off tasks and the guilt that comes along with it. Start by identifying where you delay, and become aware of these habits so you can begin making positive changes. It’s time to own your bad habits and stop putting off until tomorrow what you can do today.

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