Everyone can think of a time when they procrastinated, like completing a thousand trivial household tasks before finally sitting down late at night to pay the bills or neglecting to mail a package so long the box was covered in a layer of dust.
What you may not have realised is just how much procrastination affects our daily lives, with a 2015 study revealing Britons spend four hours a day putting off tasks that need to be done.
That tendency to put off until tomorrow what we could do today follows us from home to our jobs, limiting our productivity and potential for advancement. A lack of motivation and looming deadlines also cause us stress at work, and we can end up hating what we once thought was our dream job.
So, how do we conquer this major issue that wastes so much time and prevents us from succeeding? It will take some mental tricks, preparation and even a bit of bribery, but here are 10 ways to stop procrastinating at work.
1. Plan Your Workweek in Advance
Mapping out tasks for the week ahead is an excellent way for anyone to be more efficient at work, but it's especially helpful if you often find yourself overwhelmed by the volume of work and unsure how to start. Not knowing which task to tackle first leads to indecision and procrastination and, meanwhile, your inbox is filling up even more.
Take the time on Monday morning, or even Sunday evening at home, to evaluate upcoming projects and the regular duties you attend to each week. Estimate how long each task will take to complete, which ones are more time sensitive and which report requires input from a boss who won't be in until Wednesday. Try to spread the tasks evenly across the week. Organise with a calendar app or jot your projected schedule down in your daily planner.
Now when you sit at your desk each morning, you have a manageable to-do list already figured out. This reduces stress, and it helps you get started right away.
Sometimes you'll realise during scheduling that there really is too much work for one person to do. Procrastinators are often perfectionists, and that sometimes means taking on too many responsibilities because you think no one else can do the job correctly. The ever-increasing workload triggers those overwhelmed feelings, leading to more procrastination and having to put in extra hours just to get everything done.
A stress-filled week of overtime messes with your work-life balance, and it can kick off a vicious cycle of procrastination and feeling overworked. Learn to let some tasks go to interns, part-timers and even a colleague who hasn't been pulling their weight. Accept that you can't control everything, and console yourself with the idea that a smaller workload means you can devote more time and care to each task.
3. Eliminate Distractions
Procrastinators love distractions. A 'quick check' of social media, gathering around the coffee machine to gossip about Bob in HR getting fired, going through pages of work or personal emails – anything to put off inputting budget numbers for the month.
Everyone needs a bit of a breather during the grind of the workday, but it's a problem when that glance at Twitter leads you down a 25-minute rabbit hole of reading all 825 angry comments on a promoted tweet.
Since you can't rely on self-control, the best way to beat procrastination is to get rid of as many distractions in your workspace as possible. Put your mobile on silent, send your work calls to voicemail and disable social media sites on your computer.
If you need to focus on a single time-sensitive task, close the rest of those 125 unrelated tabs on the screen. Use noise-cancelling headphones if you're allowed to at work or close your office door if you're lucky enough to have one.
Working in a busy office may mean you can't shut out all possible distractions, but the more you reduce these potential time-wasters, the better you'll be able to avoid procrastination and get your work done.
4. Give Yourself Shorter Deadlines
Most habitual procrastinators will have a favourite story about shaving close to a deadline, like sliding a children's lit paper written in actual pencil under the professor's office door at midnight on the due date and still getting a good grade.
Those who procrastinate have trouble with motivation, and giving them three months to do an assignment can cause them more difficulty than asking them to turn in something tomorrow – especially if they've done some of their best work when facing a critical deadline.
If this sounds like you, you should set your own deadlines. If you need to have all the hotel rooms booked for a trade show by the end of the month, give yourself a mid-month deadline instead. Mark it in your calendar and set reminders. This will prevent the procrastinator's trademark self-sabotaging 'I have plenty of time' mentality. Give yourself specific goals and shorter due dates, and you'll stay focused and more productive at work.
Learning how to prioritise is a time-management skill that every employee should master, and it's not just about arranging tasks by deadline. Many workers procrastinate because of an unpleasant task they don't want to tackle, whether it's dealing with a belligerent client, writing up a complicated report or even something you feel is unnecessary busy work.
Avoiding these tasks can kick off a cascade of procrastination, preventing you from getting even the simpler parts of your job done, because you're preoccupied with the work you're not doing. When possible, make these arduous projects a priority on each day's list. Getting them out of the way first relieves you of a huge burden and makes it easier to sail through the rest of the day's work.
6. Break a Project into Smaller Tasks
The best way to avoid procrastination is to find the easiest way possible to start a project. Planning your day ahead of time and prioritising your workload are ways of breaking your weeks and then days down into more manageable sections. But if you still procrastinate on tackling your to-do list, you'll have to break these tasks down even further.
Say your boss wants you to order company T-shirts for your department for the next event. Think about the steps you'll take to get this done.
- Check your budget to see how much you can spend on shirts.
- Talk with your usual vendors and find out T-shirt options, cost and delivery date.
- Poll the staff on preferred sizing and design.
- Make the final decision and order the shirts.
Break a single task down into steps, and it becomes more manageable. Step One shouldn't take too long, and once you've completed it, you're already 25% done with this project.
Entrepreneur and author James Clear suggests applying the 'two-minute rule' to tasks you are finding extremely difficult to start. If you must review a 25-page report, for example, set yourself the tiny goal of reading one page. Your mind accepts the two-minute read as an easy task and won't kick off into procrastination mode. Once you've read that first page, though, you'll likely read more. It's just a trick on the mind to get you to start.
7. Enlist Help
If you want to stop procrastinating at work, you may need to ask for help from others. Sit down with one or more of your colleagues and ask them to brainstorm with you for a particularly difficult task. Getting their input can give you the motivation to start the project, and your coworkers may have solutions to help overcome what seemed like insurmountable problems.
Asking for help on a task is a great way to beat procrastination before it starts, but bringing other people into the process is also useful for creating accountability. Once you've taken their advice, they'll be checking in with you to see how it's going. You'll be more inspired to show progress if others are counting on you.
You can also draw on outside sources if you do better with accountability, especially if you freelance or telecommute and often work on your own. A friend or family member can contact you regularly, offering both support and a gentle nudge to stay on track and avoid procrastination.
8. Change Your Environment
Working from home offers a different set of distractions that can easily lead to procrastination. There's the ease of binge-watching Netflix, the guilt-inflicting pile of laundry and a comfy bed nearby for taking a nap.
Sometimes the only way to avoid procrastinating is to take your work to the local library or even a coffee shop. A change of scene can help you focus and can also sometimes inspire fresh ideas.
It can be more difficult to change your environment at a traditional desk job, but even a short-term shift in location can help stimulate your creativity. Duck into an empty conference room to work for a couple of hours. Take a walk around the building for some exercise and fresh air.
Breaking up the monotony of your surroundings in any way can help you feel less bored and prone to distractions and procrastination.
9. Set Up a Reward System
Like the child who gets a cookie for behaving at the grocer's, you can reward your own behaviour as an incentive to complete your work. Even something small, like taking a break to grab a snack from the vending machine, can help motivate you to complete a task rather than procrastinating on it.
Keep the rewards proportional. Reading that first page of a report shouldn't warrant a two-hour lunch at a steakhouse.
The reward doesn't have to be something tangible. Imagine the relief from anxiety and self-doubt once you're done with a difficult work project. Often just visualising how great you'll feel after you've completed an onerous task can help you avoid procrastination.
10. Don't Be So Hard on Yourself
A combination of perfectionism and fear of failure can cripple some people with never-ending procrastination. If you never finish that book or make that proposal to the partners, you won't fail. Unfortunately, not trying also means you won't succeed, and putting off required work can get you fired.
This can be a difficult lesson, particularly for creatives and commission-based workers, but try not to base your entire self-worth on your success at work. There is more to you than your job, and it's important to remember that a mistake in a report or a presentation that's criticised by your boss isn't the end of the world.
You can strive to do well without putting unrealistic pressure on yourself. Easing up on that pressure can make it easier to dive into your work and avoid the procrastination that harms your self-worth even more.
All of us have dealt with putting off important tasks, and whether it's an occasional problem or an ongoing issue, hopefully these 10 tips on avoiding procrastination at work will assist you in getting back on track.
What techniques have helped you stop procrastinating? Join the discussion below and let us know!