How to Stop Procrastinators from Holding Back Teamwork

|   Mar 28, 2016

Roughly one out of every five people are chronic procrastinators. For workers, that’s a hard hit to your personal productivity. For project managers, procrastination is a major road block to teamwork. So how do you stop it?

Procrastination and You

Imagine a “Rational Decision-Maker” at the wheel of your brain and an “Instant Gratification Monkey” at its side. The Rational Decision-Maker charts a productive course—you know you need to get started soon to meet a deadline—but when something easier or more fun to do is within sight, the Monkey takes the wheel. This is what your brain looks like on procrastination, said Blogger Tim Urban in a recent TED talk.

Sure, there are consequences. You might not produce your best quality work, you risk missing a deadline and, most importantly, you put tons of stress on yourself.

But master procrastinators like you and Tim keep up the habit because, after caffeinating and pulling all-nighters, you make it work. Gambling the fate of your project is a rush, and you feel good pulling it all off at the last minute. Those victories reassure you that you can do it again and again—all while indulging in every immediate, rewarding distraction. “This is the procrastinator’s system. It’s not pretty, but in the end, it works,” said Tim.

Procrastination and Teamwork

Unfortunately for procrastinators, most work environments are built on teamwork, and even if you ultimately cross the finish line, procrastination erodes that teamwork along the way.

One of the most obvious impacts of procrastination on teamwork is weakened trust and work relationships. It’s difficult for teammates to trust you if you’re not upfront about your lack of progress or if you leave them guessing until the last minute if you’ve done your part. And it’s not hard to see how laziness could rub others the wrong way, especially if teammates then have to pick up the slack (and potentially not even get credit).

Procrastination is also one of those bad personality traits that can be contagious in groups (after all, we are products of our environment). Hiring and human resources managers have even said procrastination at work lowers morale (30 percent) and even loses revenue for the company (21 percent), in a CareerBuilder survey.


The Procrastinator’s Recovery Guide

The reason functioning procrastinators get any work done at all is because the “Panic Monster” appears, according to Tim. The Panic Monster chases the Monkey away, but it only comes out in the face of certain danger, like embarrassment or getting fired. The closer you get to a deadline, for example, the more danger you sense.

Deadlines, then, are essential to eliminate procrastination. “When there’s deadlines, the effects of procrastination are contained to the short term because the Panic Monster gets involved,” said Tim.

The problem is that deadlines are often too far-off or completely non-existent. Having a single, distant deadline perpetuates the ugly procrastination cycle, and much of the work you do doesn’t have a deadline at all.

So instead, break up a project or assignment into small tasks with daily deadlines. Outline key objectives for every project and then add tasks so you have something to work on every day. Plus, this organizes the overwhelming chaos of big projects into manageable pieces.

And create deadlines for work outside of projects—the stuff that falls under teamwork, communication, collaboration, innovation. If you want to be known for creative ideas, create a daily deadline to drum up one good idea or read up on relevant resources. If a project requires ongoing communication, add tasks to follow up with project members.

An estimated 50 percent of work is “non-essential,” but as Tim says, without deadlines, you could end up working towards these initiatives forever:

“Now if the procrastinator’s only mechanism of doing these hard things is the Panic Monster, that’s a problem, because in all of these non-deadline situations, the Panic Monster doesn’t show up. He has nothing to wake up for, so the effects of procrastination, they’re not contained; they just extend outward forever.”

Plus, the daily act of checking off these small tasks is an ongoing boost to motivation. Project progress, big or small, triggers positive feelings, according to Harvard Business Review research on the power of small wins.

panic work

[Related: A New Way to Create To-Do Lists You’ll Finally Finish at Work]

Using the Danger of Transparency

A third way to evoke the Panic Monster: let others create deadlines for you. That means, project managers, you need to work with your procrastinators to create these small, daily deadlines.

According to a study cited in The Atlantic, self-imposed deadlines aren’t always as effective as external deadlines. That’s because when you miss a deadline you created, there are no immediate consequences. Missing a deadline your manager created: that’s scary. That kind of transparency and daily accountability feels much more dangerous, luring the Panic Monster out early in the project.

And on the flip side, transparency can also mean regular rewards in the form of a public congratulations or a private thanks, and there’s some added self-gratification of knowing everyone can see you check something off your task list every day. Transparent, external daily deadlines also help clear up any confusion about a project’s priorities and instructions, easing your fear and dread of failure (for procrastinating perfectionists).

Of course, not all procrastination is bad for business. Sometimes the desire to procrastinate, or the fear and dread of getting started, means you need to change course. Read why on the Socialcast Blog.

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