Let’s face it. We’ve all been there before, some more often than others: leaving projects to the last minute, shopping for the holidays on Christmas Eve, pulling an all-nighter to write an essay, studying the morning of an exam. In fact, according to Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, 95 per cent of adults admit to occasionally procrastinating. Twenty per cent described themselves as chronic procrastinators.
Dr. Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University, describes procrastination as the voluntary delay of a task despite knowing that you will probably be worse off for the delay. It provides short-term mood repair so that “we might get rid of the negative emotions attached to the task at hand like boredom, fear of failure, frustration, anger or resentment,” he says.
The important thing to acknowledge, Pychyl explains, is that there is no upside to procrastination. It is an “avoidance coping response.”
Contributing factors include a lack of self-control, low levels of confidence, socially prescribed perfectionism and disorganization, to name a few. And for those with the perfect combination of hereditary and environmental factors, (i.e. socially prescribed perfectionists with a penchant for disorganization), you’ve got the “perfect storm” guaranteeing that you will procrastinate.
And if you are a procrastinator, or are inclined to put things off, “you’re constantly on the lookout for interruption,” says Laura Williams of Williams HR Law, “and you need to learn how to rein in all distractions, to set yourself up for success.”
There are costs to procrastination. These range from lost productivity in the workplace to strained relationships and health issues. It has a direct effect on stress, and research by Dr. Fuschia Sirois from Bishop’s University has shown that procrastinators tend to have trouble sleeping, eating well and exercising.
But there is hope. Procrastinators can change. Step one is to never wait until tomorrow to do what you can do today.
Procrastination in the legal workplace
In a law office, wasting time is practically viewed as a form of sabotage. It can lead to blown deadlines, lost time and negative work relationships. Here are ways your procrastination affects the workplace:
If time is money, then wasting (procrastinating) time means losing money. We build inefficiencies in our day when we put things off, and that is time we can’t get back. And in the world of the billable hour, procrastination is just not an option.
Lower quality of work
Procrastinators often believe that they work best under pressure, when the ‘adrenaline’ kicks in. But more often than not, says productivity consultant Ann Gomez, last minute work means lower quality work. “If you do it at the last minute, there is no buffer built in to seek input from subject matter experts and colleagues, and there is no time for a proper review of the material which can lead to sloppy deliverables,” she explains.
Task avoidance doesn’t just affect the procrastinator: It can mean missing deadlines and letting down colleagues and clients. If you are a chronic procrastinator, clients and colleagues will come to view you as unreliable, incompetent, or just plain lazy. Don’t be the person nobody wants on their team, says Gomez.
By the numb3rs
Percentage of people that admit to occasionally procrastinating.
(The Chronicle of Higher Education)
Percentage of people that have experienced financial loss due to procrastination.
Percentage of procrastinators that consider themselves successful (The Procrastination Equation).
Percentage of American adult population that are chronic procrastinators. (The Chronicle of Higher Education)
Conquering the beast
Procrastinators don’t despair! Productivity consultant Ann Gomez says it is possible to overcome procrastination, but it does take time, practice and dedication. Gomez created the acronym ACT to address the underlying root causes of procrastination and help break the cycle:
‘A’ for Attainable: Some people procrastinate because they feel the work is unattainable, too big of a mountain to climb. Break down the project into more manageable, bite-size pieces.
‘C’ for Confidence: High performing professionals tend to struggle with this one. The standards are high and there is a lot of pressure to produce work that meets expectations. A key strategy is to seek input from other ‘experts’ as you move through the phases of work, and reflect on your past successes as a confidence boost.
‘T’ for Timeline: Having no deadline is inviting procrastination to settle in. Set a timeline with specific deadlines for each actionable step of the project.
Advice from the experts
Dr. Tim Pychyl, Associate professor in the department of psychology, Carleton University
“It’s always in your best interest to make a commitment to a very concrete act and the more often you do that, you’re going to be much more successful. Vague intentions are a lack of commitment — ‘I’ll do that later,’ that doesn’t mean anything at all except perhaps that you don’t want to do it.
It’s also important to let go of all the negative thoughts and the ‘what ifs’ and just get started. Start anywhere — start in the middle, start at the end, start wherever you think you can start — and don’t worry about where you’re starting, just get started. It’s priming the pump to getting the task done.”
Ann Gomez, Productivity consultant, Clear Concept
“When working with a procrastinator, deadlines are critical. Instead of aying to someone ‘Can you have that big, final package to me by June 30th,’ say something like ‘can we meet again in three days so we can review your initial draft?’ This way you are helping them to break down the task to the next actionable step and you’re helping to set short-term deadlines. And nothing drives productivity like a deadline. Deadlines usually address all of the root causes of procrastination. You can still have a lack of confidence related to a task, or not feel like doing it, but if it’s due on Friday you’re going to have to hunker down.”
Laura Williams, Founder, HR Law
“You have to be intentional and use the resources that are available to you to help ensure that you manage habits that lead to procrastination. Working with your assistant can help you to ensure that you have a strategy in terms of managing your email, managing phone interruptions, and managing the kind of ‘got a minute?’ meetings that pull you from your tasks. The key advice I would give to lawyers that have an assistant is to make them part of the processes they put in place to battle their procrastination habits, because we all fall subject to different ones.”