How to Stop Procrastinating at Work

Published: Jan 22, 2013

 Workplace Issues       
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"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise as they go flying by."

That quote, from the writer Douglas Adams, is as famous an epithet as you're likely to find regarding the art of getting your work in on time—or not, as the case may be. 

But while it may be the cause for a wry grin from those of us who occasionally have to pull a series of late nights to finish the work that should have been done two days ago, it doesn't offer us any help on how to avoid getting into that position in the first place.

Chances are, if you're someone who constantly struggles to meet deadlines, you're in one of two camps: you're either chronically overworked, or you're a procrastinator. If you're in the former camp, there are plenty of solutions and pieces of advice out there: they usually revolve around learning how to say no, how to delegate effectively, and how to find a whole new job with a more reasonable boss.

Far more interesting—at least to an occasional member of the club—is the question of how to deal with procrastination. As a problem, it's something that seems to have an easy solution on the surface—do your work!—but that, due to its nature, is much more complicated.

As a piece in the New York Times pointed out last week, the issue isn't that the procrastinator is doing nothing—it's that they somehow find themselves doing other things instead of the critically important task that they're supposed to be tackling. As such, the problem is essentially a psychological one—when you have a degree of choice as to how you spend your time, how do you summon the willpower to do what you should, rather than what you'd prefer?

How big of a problem is procrastination at work? Check out this excerpt from the Times piece: 

"Dr. Steel, who has surveyed more than 24,000 people around the world, says that 95 percent of people confess to at least occasional procrastination. (You can gauge yourself by taking his survey at About 25 percent of those surveyed are chronic procrastinators, five times the rate in the 1970s."

"He attributes the increase to the changing nature of the workplace: the more flexible that jobs become, the more opportunities to avoid unpleasant tasks. Workers now typically spend a quarter of the day procrastinating, students a third of the day. Men are more likely than women to be chronic procrastinators, especially young men."

One thing that it is important to point out is that the reasons for procrastination are many and varied. Some may do it simply because they find their work to be unpleasant, repetitive or boring. Others may do it simply out of habit—they've fallen into certain patterns at work, and find it hard to break out. Yet another reason is distraction: in a world where we're constantly connected to breaking "news", and have the entire sum of human knowledge at our fingertips at any hour of the day—not to mention all those cat pictures—staying on task seems like more of a challenge than ever before. 

So what can you do about the problem? 

Trick Yourself

According to the Times piece, the answer may lie in your ability to trick yourself. Suggestions include making lists with important-sounding but less critical items at the top and more critical items at the bottom—the idea being that you will trick yourself into doing the more critical items by shying away from those at the top of the list. That principle also lies behind this comment from Dr. Steel (the author of the study quoted above): "My best trick is to play my projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another." 

Reduce Distraction

When it comes to dealing with distraction—especially those offered by the internet—there are few people who have suffered more than the novelist Zadie Smith, a self-confessed internet addict. In the acknowledgements to her most recent novel, Smith cited two software programs that block internet access for "creating the time" to write the novel often. While this approach also relies on tricking yourself to an extent (the programs can be circumvented fairly easily), it underlines the importance of reducing distractions in order to focus properly on the task at hand. 

Set habits

On a similar note, the Times piece cites the example of another writer from a different age—Raymond Chandler.  While internet addiction was an impossibility in Chandler's day, procrastination was clearly still a problem. Hence, his solution, dubbed the "Nothing Alternative" in the Times: 

"Chandler forced himself to work by setting aside four hours a day and following two rules:

a)    You don't have to write.

b)    You can't do anything else.

'It's the same principle as keeping order in a school,' Chandler explained. 'If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored.'"

Leaving aside the issue of being compared to a schoolchild, there's a serious reason there for all procrastinators to rejoice: apparently it’s possible to have a successful career in just four hours a day, if you harness you energies appropriately!

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NY Times: This was supposed to be my column for New Year's Day Novelists fight Internet addiction