Procrastination

Face it — you need to make up your mind

Delphine Dépy Carron, printemps 2021

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The last year has been something of a feeding ground for procrastination. Defined as “the action of delaying or postponing something,” procrastination has almost been forced on the world with the implementation of lockdowns and curfews that have found most of us marooned in our own homes for months.

But procrastination is not simply inaction; nor is it the absence of decision making. It is a behaviour, rather than a state of mind, that is a symptom of many of society’s ills. And in a corporate context, anxiety, depression or a fear of failure or rejection can all increase procrastination—it is the veil that helps us avoid being “seen” by others that could have a disastrous impact on the whole business.

It’s easy to see why. COVID-19 creates trauma that immobilizes people. Without any prospect of immediate rewards, it’s often easier to postpone actions until tomorrow in the hope of feeling better, stronger or more motivated. When tomorrow comes, sometimes emotions are still running high. Despite the promises we make to ourselves to move forward, our own inaction breeds more inaction. Prompted by a fear of failure and the judgment of others, we find more reasons not to act.

It’s not all about the global pandemic, either. We’re being bombarded by a tsunami of information on a daily basis. It’s hard to know where to focus our efforts, so we postpone action in case it is the “wrong” one.

What’s more, social media is not only a distraction, but also has put us all under scrutiny in new ways. Our personal and professional lives can be commented on or unfollowed at a moment’s notice, often making us hesitant to know what to post, like or retweet next. It taps into hot buttons of low self-esteem and our desire to avoid criticism and rejection.

In a business context, there’s a lot of fear in corporate organisations about doing (or being seen to do) the “wrong” thing which can also encourage a climate of procrastination. Failure is often seen to be unacceptable, which can dull people’s ability to take responsibility for their actions. In meetings, an employee who disagrees with a course of action proposed by senior leaders may procrastinate by being late for team meetings or in delivering work—or even then influencing other colleagues to do the same, reducing confidence and motivation.

According to Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, about 95% of people admit to putting off work. While author and researcher Chris Bailey told the Harvard Business Review in his article on the topic that he felt the remaining 5% were lying![1]

Back to biology

Caroline Webb writing in Harvard Business Review[2] says: “the problem is our brains are programmed to procrastinate.”  There is a clear conflict between the prefrontal cortex, which is our brain’s control room (communications, functions and organisation) and the limbic system (the regulator of instinct and mood and basic emotions). The limbic system is more powerful than the prefrontal cortex, so it tends to override the more rational workhorse of the prefrontal cortex.

 

Today, in a digital world, we have become accustomed to instant gratification. Video games take us into other worlds where being killed simply means a refresh that takes us on to another level and scenario (to do it all over again).

 

The accelerated growth of e-commerce, up 77% year-over-year in 2020,[3] means we can buy anything at any time of the day or night. And our brains have become used to that speed of reward—there is almost a sense of entitlement.

It’s a long way from the “marshmallow tests” which let young children decide between immediate reward and delaying gratification 40 years ago.[4]  In fact, a study has shown that the motivation to act and the motivation to avoid vary when delaying a task, explaining why people decide not to act now but are willing to act in the future. The study concludes that individual differences in procrastination are reflected in changes in the brain. More specifically, these differences appear as abnormalities in the brain in areas that regulate emotion, long-term memory or future thinking.[5]

Business leaders need to not only understand the domino effect of these natural brain responses, but also be aware and find solutions to the procrastination phenomenon. As a study among students indicates, procrastination appears to be a self-defeating behaviour pattern marked by short-term benefits and long-term costs.[6] So when it comes to entering the workplace, if emotional responses are ignored or even taboo, enabling procrastination to flourish, organisations will be unable take advantage of the many positive benefits of employees who bring their whole selves to work.

 

Act now

 

I’ve found it interesting in my work as a neuroscientist and coach with senior business executives how even the word procrastination is not well received. And yet I have instances where it was very much in evidence. Take the Director who came to see me worrying about his lack of motivation. Through our work together he discovered that it wasn’t a lack of purpose or a failure to understand what was required of him by the company that was at the heart of his issues. Both he and the company were aligned on their end goals. But, exploring his thinking, we found that the main task ahead of him did not inspire him or tap into his creative side. In essence, the work was boring.

 

In turn, this boredom built up a lot of anxiety and pressure—pressure he put on himself but that was evidenced by his colleagues and peers. Behind it was a fear of failure and a desire to be recognised. He wanted to avoid disappointing his colleagues because, in his mind, this could escalate to losing his job, not having any money and being unable to support his family. We all know where those conversations in our heads take us to exploit our deep-seated fears from one small idea!

 

So how can you handle procrastination? There are some clear steps that companies can take to understand the symptoms and deal with them:  

  1. Recognize it: Look out for typical behaviours, like regular delays in delivering work. Difficult contexts, like the pandemic, make us turn to a “new normal” which can be a red flag to our emotions. Change often inspires anxiety around fear of the unknown. Be aware that issues can develop from a change in context—perhaps as a result of another disruption such as merger or acquisition—and be open to understanding what has happened and why.

  2. Talk about it: Don’t be afraid to talk about well-being. Get emotions out on the table. Use a broad range of communications tools, such as video and newsletters, to explore the subject and give it air-time. Examine what people need to do to complete their tasks. Don’t allow fears to fester; conduct an interview or face-to-face meeting to enable them to open up about their issues. Look at the roots of behaviours in the context of a trustful relationship.

  3. Introduce safeguards. Tackle what lies at the heart of the procrastination by taking practical steps to help. So, if the person feels overwhelmed by work, offer to split the project into tasks and sub-tasks or shift the deadlines, where you can. Delegate or reassign work that may be more suited to your procrastinating colleague.

 

As with any response triggered by the fundamental mechanics of the brain, procrastination is a complex subject that requires sensitivity and empathy to handle. And we all need to be mindful that procrastination can happen to the best of us. Do we have a choice about what we do and when we do it? You decide.

 

[1] “5 Research-based Strategies for Overcoming Procrastination,” by Chris Bailey, October 4 2017, Harvard Business Review,

[2] “How to Beat Procrastination” by Caroline Webb, July 29, 2016 Harvard Business Review

[3] COVID-19 Accelerated E-Commerce Growth ‘4 To 6 Years’ (forbes.com)

[4] The Stanford Marshmallow Test - Practical Psychology (practicalpie.com)

[5] Shunmin Zhang, Peiwei Liu, Tingyong Feng, “To do it now or later: The cognitive mechanisms and neural substrates underlying procrastination” January 14, 2019.

[6] Dianne M. Tice and Roy Baumeister, “The Costs and Benefits of Dawdling”, November 1997, Psychological Science.

@HiMage / Thomas Carron

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Neuroscientist and executive coach, Delphine Dépy Carron, has been helping leaders, intrapreneurs, teams and organizations to reinvent themselves for nearly 20 years. Studying intelligence, she discovered how animal intelligence can be a powerful source of inspiration and development for humans. She is regularly asked to help organizations develop emotional intelligence, leadership, relational intelligence, and creativity. Her programs involve working with horses or dolphins to accelerate awareness and promote sustainable behavioral change. Delphine is also a trainer at HEC Paris School of Coaching.