What Drives Procrastination at Work

A worker plans out her day.

Many people are facing a new challenge at work. Working from their own homes — at least for the first half of 2020 — has disrupted routines and removed the structure workers are used to having at the office. Because of this, many of America’s workers are struggling with procrastination as they establish new routines to drive their workdays.

With commutes eliminated and communication limited to phone, video meetings and email, people are suddenly finding that they have many more available hours in the day to be productive. However, they are also finding that procrastination is more difficult to overcome than ever before. Why? As it turns out, procrastination is impacted by a number of emotional factors that are at their height right now — and being away from co-workers and managers makes it even easier to give in.


What Drives Procrastination

Though procrastination is often thought of in the context of time management, it is actually a behavior driven by emotion.

When faced with a task that they may consider tedious, stressful or overwhelming, people may engage in procrastination to experience short-term pleasure and avoid negative feelings. As Dr. Tim Pychyl notes in the New York Times, “Procrastination is an emotion regulation problem, not a time management problem.” When considering the additional stressors attached to tasks during a worldwide pandemic — the anxieties around health, job performance, family commitments and security — it is no surprise that procrastination can be even harder to overcome right now.

Essentially, procrastination is driven by avoiding or managing a bad mood — it is a short-term response to a negative emotion. The task being put off may be unpleasant, or an individual may feel insecure about handling the task due to low self-esteem or anxiety. When faced with a negative association, the amygdala portion of the brain — which controls the “fight or flight” response — treats the task as a threat. Even if a person logically knows that putting this task off could have long-term implications, the amygdala’s response will often inhibit thoughtful decision-making.


“Fixing” Procrastination

Prioritizing short-term pleasure and avoiding negative feelings can, ironically, have long-term impacts. Putting off the task initially then contributes to the overall negativity surrounding it, which can further procrastination behavior and introduce a new element of self-blame.

This is why solutions to procrastination may involve tricking or rewiring the brain, by offering a bigger short-term reward than avoidance or by being purposeful with self-forgiveness when procrastination does occur. Another solution would be to identify the reasons behind the task avoidance and implement changes accordingly.

Read below about some common drivers of the negative emotions that cause procrastination and how they can be mitigated.


Avoidance Is Easy

Few workers rush into work that isn’t appealing to them. There are plenty of other activities that people would likely rather engage in, especially when at home. Where there is the opportunity, avoidance and the pursuit of easy entertainment is natural. It’s far more pleasing to the mind to put the work off.

Continual procrastination driven by lack of fulfillment may indicate that it is time for a job or career change. Pursuing something that is of interest can help individuals feel self-motivated and derive pleasure from the work, rather than from the distraction.

From the perspective of the company, leaders should keep in mind that motivation or lack thereof is a primary factor that can break or reinforce procrastination. Team building exercises and flexible policies — especially during the COVID-19 outbreak — can help employees feel valued, cooperative, supported and ultimately motivated.


Productivity Culture

The concept of business in America traditionally centers on production. Modern office culture tends to equate output with successful work activity. Any appearance of “staying busy” tends to satisfy that cultural expectation.

However, the flipside of this cultural perspective then means that not being “productive” every day must be wrong. If a task has many stages to it, requires deep concentration or cannot be completed quickly, workers may be more likely to procrastinate. This, in turn, can create stress, which then becomes easy to reduce with distractions and more procrastination. Social media, the news, music or even chatting with someone all create wanted distractions to get away from stress around productivity, even if momentarily.

Shifting focus from output to progress, changing project metrics or simply breaking projects into smaller chunks can help mitigate this driver of procrastination.


It All Starts with Management

An Applied Psychology Master's degree online can be an invaluable tool for managers looking for better ways to motivate people to produce, especially across geographical space. How one influences others, communicates and motivates matters far more now and probably will continue to make productivity differences in the new normal of post-COVID-19 work.