Learning & Development, Talent

A New Way to Think About Procrastination

Procrastination: We’ve all been guilty of it—some of us certainly more than others. Whether we blame it on competing priorities, the complexity of the task, or simply the aversion to the work itself, we’ve all put off getting started on or completing a project or task.

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Sometimes, we procrastinate by working on other, less daunting work. But often, we’re simply wasting time. And that wasted time amounts to wasted money—by some estimates, thousands of dollars per year per employee.

One traditional means of addressing procrastination at the individual or organizational level has been through encouraging better time management. The idea is that procrastinators underestimate the time it will take them to complete the task they are putting off, the time they are wasting doing other things, or both.

But the view of procrastination as a time-management problem is starting to change, says Christian Jarrett, at the BBC. “Increasingly … psychologists are realising this is wrong,” he says.

“Experts like Tim Pychyl at Carleton University in Canada and his collaborator Fuschia Sirois at the University of Sheffield in the UK have proposed that procrastination is an issue with managing our emotions, not our time,” Jarrett adds. “The task we’re putting off is making us feel bad—perhaps it’s boring, too difficult or we’re worried about failing—and to make ourselves feel better in the moment, we start doing something else, like watching videos.”

This research suggests possible alternative approaches to addressing procrastination beyond simple “time management.” While organizations can’t simply make unpleasant work go away, they can possibly work with staff to help address and reduce the stress inherent in certain tasks, for example, or perhaps engage senior staff early on in a project to answer questions and help get the ball rolling.

Procrastination isn’t just frustrating to us and our coworkers and bosses; it also costs a lot of money. Understanding that the root causes of procrastination may be emotional rather than time-management-based can help individuals and organizations better address the problem and become happier and more productive.