Business procrastination occurs when people unnecessarily postpone business-related decisions or actions. This behavior can lead to many serious issues, such as missed opportunities and increased personal conflicts, and it can influence people in various situations, from a solo entrepreneur developing a tech startup to a C-Suite executive running a finance corporation.
Because business procrastination can be highly problematic, it’s important to understand it. As such, in the following article you will learn more about this phenomenon, understand what causes it, and see what you can do about it in practice.
Examples of business procrastination
Business procrastination can take many forms, such as the following:
- Delaying asking people for necessary feedback on software that you’re developing, because you’re afraid that the feedback will be negative.
- Delaying launching your new product, because you want to make sure that it’s absolutely perfect, even though it’s already good enough for your purposes and it would be better to just launch it already.
- Delaying marketing your new app, because you’re a developer or a designer and marketing is outside your comfort zone.
- Delaying finalizing an investment decision, even though the delay is costing you money, and even though you already know exactly what choice you should make.
- Delaying pivoting your startup to a new focus, because you’re unsure how to do it, even though it’s clear that it’s necessary.
- Delaying shutting down a bankrupt company and moving on, because you’re afraid of admitting that you’ve failed, even though doing this will be better for you in the long term.
- Delaying selling your successful company, even though you know that doing so will be best for you, because it’s hard for you to let go of it, and because you’re afraid of the changes in your life and routine that selling will lead to.
In addition, business procrastination can also play a role when it comes to decisions or actions that are more personal. For example, this can involve:
- Delaying talking to a business partner or an important customer, because you’re afraid of confrontation, even though this talk is clearly necessary and you would be better off just getting it over with.
- Delaying leaving your current job and moving to another company, because you’re afraid of all the unknown changes that may be involved, even though the benefits of moving clearly outweigh the downsides.
- Delaying switching career paths, because you’re worried that you’ll make the wrong decision, even though you’ve considered all the relevant information and know that this is the best option.
Difference between procrastination and strategic delay
Procrastination involves unnecessary delay, which is generally expected to lead to negative outcomes. As such, it’s different from strategic delay, which occurs when people postpone things because doing so is expected to be more beneficial for them than not.
For example, if a CEO unnecessarily delays launching a product because they’re afraid of failure, then they’re procrastinating. Conversely, if a CEO delays launching a product because it’s crucial to improve it in order to make it successful, then they’re engaging in strategic delay, rather than procrastination.
Relation to workplace procrastination
Business procrastination is closely related to workplace procrastination, a prevalent phenomenon where people unnecessarily postpone dealing with work-related tasks.
To distinguish between these concepts, it’s possible to conceptualize workplace procrastination as generally involving narrow tasks with limited influence on business outcomes, and business procrastination as generally involving broad tasks with substantial influence on business outcomes. This means, for example, that an employee who procrastinates on sending an unimportant email is more likely to be categorized as engaging in workplace procrastination, whereas an entrepreneur who procrastinates on contacting potential customers is more likely to be categorized as engaging in business procrastination.
However, there is substantial overlap between these two types of procrastination, and the distinction between them is somewhat unclear. Nevertheless, and especially given the similarities between these types of procrastination, any distinctions between them generally aren’t crucial from a practical perspective. Rather, what’s important is to simply understand that this general type of workplace and business procrastination exists, and to understand what it involves, what causes it, and how it can be solved.
Dangers of business procrastination
The key problem of business procrastination is that it makes you too slow to decide and act. This, in turn, can lead to various types of issues, including:
- Practical issues, such as missing out on valuable opportunities (e.g., because you took too long to enter a market or follow up on a networking conversation), wasting resources (e.g., spending time and effort developing the wrong features because you didn’t get feedback early enough), or being unable to make progress on your work.
- Social issues, such as getting into personal conflicts with co-founders, losing people’s trust, and being perceived by others as indecisive, incompetent, or unreliable.
- Personal issues, such as slower personal growth, increased stress, and increased negative emotions (e.g., frustration, guilt, and shame).
The specific issues that procrastination leads to depend on factors such as the organization you work in, your role in the organization, the tasks you procrastinate on, the way you procrastinate, and your reasons for procrastinating.
In addition, these factors can influence the severity of the issues that you’ll suffer from. For example, if you procrastinate on making just a single decision for only a short amount of time, the impact of this will generally be smaller than if you procrastinate on multiple decisions for a long amount of time. In extreme cases, procrastination can even guarantee that you’ll fail, for example if you’re so afraid of getting negative feedback on a product that you never launch it, and procrastinators for whom this is the case are sometimes called wantrepreneurs.
Finally, business procrastination can also lead to issues in other areas of life. For example, this can happen if procrastinating at work makes you so stressed that you end up also procrastinating on going to sleep. Similarly, this can happen if you need to work extra time as deadlines approach to compensate for your previous procrastination, so you skip important life commitments (e.g., relating to parenting or hobbies).
Causes of business procrastination
Many issues can lead to business procrastination, such as:
- Goals that are abstract, rather than concrete.
- Having key outcomes (e.g., rewards or punishments) that are far in the future.
- Feeling overwhelmed, and being unsure how to do something or get started.
- Being averse to tasks, for example because they seem boring, frustrating, or hard.
- Fear of various things, such as failure, rejection, or regret.
- Anxiety and doubts, for example about one’s abilities.
- Perfectionism, for example in the form of excessive concerns about making any mistakes.
- Depression that reduces a person’s energy, excitement, or motivation.
These issues can lead to problematic procrastination cycles, when procrastinating for some reason makes a person more likely to procrastinate due to that reason again in the future. For example, this can happen if anxiety makes an entrepreneur delay updating their investors, which makes the eventual interaction with the investors unpleasant, which increases the entrepreneur’s anxiety about this type of interaction, and consequently makes them more likely to delay for this reason again in the future.
Identifying business procrastination
People are often fully aware that they’re procrastinating. However, if you’re unsure whether you’re procrastinating or not, you should consider whether you’re displaying the following key indicators of procrastination:
- You’re delaying doing something (e.g., making a decision) unnecessarily.
- You can expect your delay to be more harmful than beneficial (e.g., when it comes to business outcomes and your mental health).
If, when doing this, you’re unsure about whether your reason for delaying is good or not (i.e., whether it can be considered procrastination or strategic delay), then you should carefully assess the situation, potentially by doing some combination of the following:
- Clearly outline all the outcomes that you expect your delay to lead to, including when it comes to factors such as your performance, your relationships, and your mental health.
- Clearly and explicitly outline your reasons for delaying.
- Ask yourself whether there are alternative explanations for your decision to delay.
- Ask yourself what advice you would give a friend if they were in your situation.
- Ask for feedback from someone you trust.
- Use other debiasing techniques, such as slowing down your reasoning process and improving your decision-making environment, to help yourself assess the situation in a more rational way (e.g., by minimizing issues such as the confirmation bias).
In addition, to determine whether you’re prone to procrastination, it can be beneficial to ask yourself how characteristic of your behavior are the following signs of procrastination:
- Repeatedly saying things like “I’ll do it later” or “I’ll do it tomorrow”.
- Getting stuck in neutral even though you know how important it is to get started.
- Taking a long time to complete things that require little except sitting down and doing them.
- Postponing things you don’t want to do (e.g., boring or frustrating tasks).
- Struggling to get started even if you hate yourself for it.
- Waiting until the last minute before deadlines to get started.
- Putting off making decisions for too long.
- Constantly postponing improving your work habits, despite intending to do it.
- Promising yourself you’ll do something and then dragging your feet instead.
- Finding yourself performing tasks that you intended to do days before.
- Working on trivial things instead of what you should be doing.
- Always having excuses for not doing things on time.
- Delaying taking action even after you decide what to do.
- Wasting time repeatedly and being unable to do anything about it.
- Delaying even though you know that doing it hurts your performance or wellbeing.
Solutions to business procrastination
To deal with business procrastination, you should first figure out when and how you engage in it, and why you do so. Once you understand your procrastination problem, you can identify and use the most relevant anti-procrastination techniques, in order to solve it. Such techniques include the following:
- Set concrete goals. For example, instead of a vague goal, such as “work on this project sometime this year”, set a concrete goal, such as “starting today, spend an hour working on this project every day, and be ready to launch in 30 days”.
- Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you have a large project that feels overwhelming, such as developing a business plan, you can break it down into a series of small steps, such as finding relevant guides, creating an outline, and writing the first part.
- Start with a tiny step. For example, commit to writing only a single sentence or writing for only 2 minutes, while giving yourself permission to stop after taking that tiny first step, to reduce the pressure associated with getting started.
- Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re creating a pitch deck for your startup, accept that your work won’t be perfect, especially at first.
- Figure out what you’re afraid of, and address your fears. For example, if you realize that you’re afraid of getting negative feedback from someone who isn’t really important, you can tell yourself that their feedback doesn’t matter.
- Identify the costs of procrastinating. For example, figure out exactly what kind of problems procrastination can cause for you, so you feel more motivated to take action, especially at key moments.
- Prepare for future contingencies. For example, figure out which distractions might tempt you to procrastinate, and plan how you will deal with them.
- Switch between tasks. For example, if you’re stuck on a task and can’t make progress, switch to a different task until you’re ready to go back to the first one.
- Schedule your work according to your productivity cycles. For example, if you find it easier to concentrate on creative tasks in the morning, then you should schedule such tasks for that time period as much as possible.
- Improve your work environment. For example, if your current work environment has a lot of irritating background noise, get noise-canceling headphones or go somewhere quieter.
- Improve your social-support network. For example, you can find a role model to imitate or an authority figure to hold you accountable, or you can associate with people who motivate you to make progress while minimizing your contact with people who make you feel stressed.
- Get enough rest. For example, if you need to work hard on tasks that require deep concentration, make sure to take enough breaks that you don’t get burnt out. To encourage yourself to do this, you can remind yourself that even if getting rest might reduce your productivity in the short term, it will generally be much better for you in the long term, in terms of both your productivity and wellbeing.
- Deal with underlying issues. If your procrastination is the result of a serious underlying issue, such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD, deal with that issue, using professional help if necessary. This will help you both with procrastination, as well as with the underlying issue itself.
- Develop self-efficacy. Specifically, this is your belief in your ability to perform the actions needed to achieve your goals. You can develop it in various ways, such as identifying the strategies that you can use to achieve your goals, and then thinking about how you can execute those strategies successfully.
- Forgive yourself for past procrastination. For example, if you need to get started on a task that you’ve been postponing for a long time, you can say “I shouldn’t have postponed this task in the first place, but that’s in the past, and what’s important now is to move on and just get this done”.
- Develop self-compassion. Specifically, you should develop the three components of self-compassion: self-kindness, which involves being nice to yourself, common humanity, which involves recognizing that everyone experiences challenges, and mindfulness, which involves accepting your emotions in a non-judgmental manner.
- Acknowledge and reward your progress. For example, you can treat yourself to some pleasant treat once you’ve managed to achieve your study goals for a week in a row.
When figuring out which techniques to use and how to use them, you might benefit from considering what advice you would give to a friend if they were in your situation, since doing so can often help see things more clearly than thinking directly about your own situation.
In addition, you might benefit from writing things down, for example when it comes to your goals, tasks, or plan of action. Doing this can help you think through the situation more clearly, remember your reasoning, and make everything that you decide feel more concrete, all of which can be beneficial in reducing procrastination.
Finally, note that you can use a similar approach to help someone else deal with their procrastination, for example if you’re their friend, mentor, or business partner.
In summary, to deal with business procrastination, you should first figure out when and how you engage in it, and why you do so. Then, you should identify and use relevant anti-procrastination techniques, such as setting clear goals, breaking your work into manageable steps, addressing your fears, planning for future contingencies, and giving yourself permission to make mistakes.