Workplace Procrastination: Why People Procrastinate at Work and How to Stop It

Workplace procrastination is a phenomenon where people unnecessarily postpone dealing with work-related tasks. This phenomenon is prevalent, and can lead to serious issues both for the people who procrastinate, as well as for their employers.

This article contains a comprehensive and practical overview of workplace procrastination. Specifically, it first provides relevant examples, details, and statistics about this issue. Then, it explains why people procrastinate at work, and what can be done to stop this, whether you’re an employee looking to stop procrastinating yourself, or an employer looking to reduce employee procrastination.

 

The problem of workplace procrastination

Examples of what workplace procrastination can look like

Workplace procrastination can take various forms.

For instance, a simple example of workplace procrastination is someone who watches funny videos on the internet, when they should be working on an important project instead. Similarly, another example of workplace procrastination is someone who keeps putting off writing a crucial report, by spending their time on trivial work-related tasks instead.

In addition, workplace procrastination is also associated with non-work-related presenteeism, which occurs when employees engage in personal activities instead of work-related activities while at work. For example, this form of workplace procrastination can involve someone shopping for personal items online during the workday, instead of doing the work that they should be doing.

Furthermore, one study on the topic lists several examples of workplace procrastination, that they associate with two main types of workplace procrastination:

  • Online workplace procrastination. This is also referred to as cyberslacking, and it involves spending work time doing non-work activities on digital devices, for example by browsing social media sites on one’s phone.
  • Offline workplace procrastination. This is also referred to as soldiering, and it involves spending work time doing non-work related activities without using digital devices, for example by taking long breaks, gossiping, or daydreaming.

Note that these examples of workplace procrastination are rooted in a relatively narrow view of this type of procrastination, where it is seen as necessarily involving non-work-related activities. However, it is also possible to view workplace procrastination as any procrastination related to work tasks, even if it does not involve such activities. For example, this can involve spending time working on easy and unimportant work-related tasks, as a way to put off working on an important work assignment that feels overwhelming.

Moreover, certain narrow views of workplace procrastination suggest that this form of procrastination must involve no intention to cause harm, toward the employer, the workplace, a client, or the employee themself. However, it is also possible to view workplace procrastination as a behavior that can include such an intention in some cases, as in the case, for example, of someone who takes longer to finish a task than they need to, because they resent their boss.

Nevertheless, for such behavior to be considered procrastination, there must be no practical benefit for the procrastinator, since one of the defining characteristics of procrastination is that it is unnecessary. This means, for example, that a situation where an employee postpones a critical task due to an upcoming negotiation with their management does not count as procrastination, since it is strategic in nature.

Overall, in its broadest sense, workplace procrastination refers to any unnecessary postponement of work-related tasks. This can include, for example, spending time on social media instead of working on reports, taking overly long breaks throughout the day, or delaying making an important phone call by work on trivial tasks instead. In addition, in some cases, workplace procrastination is viewed in a narrower sense, for example as behavior that must involve engaging in non-work-related activities, or as behavior that must involve no intention to cause harm.

 

The prevalence of workplace procrastination

Workplace procrastination is very common; studies suggest that it regularly comprises more than a quarter of many people’s workdays, and evidence of it has been found in a wide range of jobs, among everyone from junior employees to managers and executives. This is unsurprising given that procrastination is very common in general, as approximately 25% of adults consider procrastination to be a defining personality trait for them, and 50% of college students say that they procrastinate in a consistent and problematic manner.

However, although workplace procrastination is present almost everywhere, its prevalence and severity vary based on a number of factors, such as the type of job involved. For example, one study found that white-collar workers tend to procrastinate more than blue-collar workers. Similarly, another study, which assessed over 22,000 employees, classified various jobs based on how much procrastination people who worked in them tended to report, and found the following:

  • High procrastination jobs included food servers, legal secretaries, computer system administrators, library assistants, and sales representatives.
  • Moderate procrastination jobs included photographers, creative writers, lawyers, and general operations managers.
  • Low procrastination jobs included chief executives, librarians, economists, and loan officers.

This variation can be attributed in part to the different types of individuals who are selected for different jobs. This means, for example, that some jobs might attract people who are more likely to procrastinate, while others select only people who are unlikely to procrastinate much.

However, the structure of the job and the work environment play a substantial role in either helping people avoid procrastination or in causing people to procrastinate, regardless of their personal tendencies. As one study notes:

“… if a job is well structured and goals are set and monitored by others and rewarded, conscientious behavior is encouraged. Even those who may be unlikely to act conscientiously in other situations when left to their own devices, are encouraged to such a degree that the differences between high and low conscientious individuals may disappear; due to the situational strength, all display the desired behavior.”

— From “Procrastination and well-being at work” (van Eerde, 2016)

Finally, note that workplace procrastination can vary both at the between-person and within-person levels. This means the following:

  • Different people performing the same job might display different levels of procrastination. This can be attributed both to internal factors, such as people’s general ability to self-regulate their behavior, and to external factors, such as the amount of support that people get from their colleagues and from their managers.
  • The same person performing the same job might procrastinate to different degrees at different times. This can also be attributed both to internal factors, such as how much sleep that person got the previous night, and to external factors, such as how helpful their boss was on a given day.

Overall, workplace procrastination is a prevalent problem, that affects a large portion of the working population. It is found across various industries, in both small businesses and large corporations, and across all levels of the organizational hierarchy. However, certain factors can increase the likelihood that people will procrastinate at work, including, for example, the personality of the employee, the type of work involved, and the nature of the work environment.

 

The dangers of workplace procrastination

Workplace procrastination is associated with a variety of issues, for both the people who engage in it and for those who employ them.

From the employee’s perspective, procrastination is associated with having worse job performance, earning a lower salary, having shorter periods of employment, having a higher likelihood of unemployment and under-employment (as opposed to working full time), having lower general financial success, and suffering from worse physical and mental health, due to issues such as stress.

From the employer’s perspective, there are two main types of issues associated with workplace procrastination.

First, workplace procrastination leads to reduced productivity and worse performance among employees. For example, given that many people regularly spend hours of their workweek procrastinating, this means that they end up making less progress than they could otherwise, and in many cases, this also means that people must rush to complete tasks right before deadlines, which can lead to low-quality work. This is evident, for instance, in a study on procrastination at the U.S. patent office, which found that rushed reviews, which were completed right before the deadline, often resulted in the need for revisions during subsequent rounds of review.

Second, workplace procrastination can lead to various issues for employees, which can indirectly reduce their performance at work further, and also make them less happy at work and therefore more interested in changing jobs. For example, if a high-performing employee is placed in a work environment that leads them to procrastinate, they will likely become frustrated, which can cause them to put less effort into work and which can prompt them to look for employment elsewhere.

Note that procrastinators are often well aware of the issues associated with workplace procrastination, and are sometimes the harshest critics of this behavior. For example, one study showed that although both procrastinators and non-procrastinators believed that a procrastinating employee negatively affects their company’s productivity, procrastinators were more likely to indicate that the employee should be fired. This harsh treatment can be attributed to various causes, such as the procrastinators projecting displeasure with their own behavior, the procrastinators trying to gain social approval by distancing themselves from the problematic employee, or the procrastinators believing that this is the only valid solution for this kind of problem.

Overall, workplace procrastination is associated with a variety of issues. From the employee’s perspective, such issues include worse job performance, worse career prospects, and worse physical and mental health. From the employer’s perspective, such issues include reduced productivity and low-quality work, as well as lower job satisfaction among employees, which can reduce employee retention.

 

Why people procrastinate at work

People procrastinate at work because issues such as exhaustion and anxiety outweigh their self-control and motivation.

Specifically, when people need to get work done, they rely primarily on their self-control in order to get themself to do it. Furthermore, their self-control is sometimes supported by their motivation, which helps them get their work done on time.

However, in some cases, people suffer from various hindering factors, such as exhaustion, as well as demotivating factors, such as anxiety, which interfere with their ability to get work done on time. When these negative factors outweigh their self-control and motivation, they end up procrastinating, until they reach a point where the balance between these factors shifts in the person’s favor, or until it’s too late.

This explains why some people procrastinate at work in a chronic manner even when they have the necessary motivation and truly want to get their work done. This also explains why many people end up always procrastinating on work until right before deadlines, when the increased motivation, often in the form of stressful pressure, finally pushes them to get things done.

Accordingly, common causes of workplace procrastination include the following:

  • Abstract goals, for example when it comes to defining what needs to be done and when.
  • Feeling overwhelmed, for example when a certain project feels too large to be managed.
  • Perfectionism, for example when people want to produce work that doesn’t have any flaws.
  • Fear of failure, for example when people are concerned that a failure will reflect badly on them.
  • Anxiety, for example when people are afraid of receiving negative feedback.
  • Task aversion, for example when people find a certain task boring or unpleasant.
  • Lack of motivation, for example when people feel that they’re not being rewarded for making an effort or for making progress.
  • Resentment, for example when people feel that their employer treats them unfairly.
  • Bad fit, for example when people feel that they can’t be their authentic self at work.
  • Lack of support, for example when people have no designated person that they can contact if they encounter issues.
  • Problematic work environment, for example when people have to work in a loud and distracting office.

Other common causes of workplace procrastination include behaviors such as self-handicapping, which involves procrastinating so that if people fail they can blame their failure on procrastination rather than on their abilities, and self-sabotaging, which involves procrastinating as a result of a tendency to sabotage one’s progress. Furthermore, there are certain personality traits that are associated with the tendency to procrastinate, such as distractibility and impulsivity.

In addition, there are also some underlying physical and mental health issues that can lead to procrastination, such as lack of sleep, ADHD, and depression. For example, when it comes to sleep, when shift workers sleep badly or don’t get enough sleep, they tend to procrastinate more, especially if work times are misaligned with their chronotype (i.e. the time during which they prefer to be asleep or awake). Furthermore, the relationship between sleep and procrastination is affected by personal factors; for instance, employees who are low in trait self-control generally struggle more to handle low-quality sleep, and are therefore more likely to procrastinate as a result of it.

Overall, people procrastinate at work because issues such as exhaustion and anxiety outweigh their self-control and motivation. Common personal causes of workplace procrastination include fear of failure and lack of motivation, while common situational causes include lack of support and a problematic work environment.

Understanding the causes of a person’s procrastination is important whether you’re trying to reduce your own work procrastination or to reduce someone else’s. As such, if you’re trying to help someone stop procrastinating, including yourself, it’s worth spending time figuring out what’s causing the procrastination in the first place.

However, while understanding the cause of procrastination can be beneficial, in many cases you can reduce work procrastination even without fully figuring this out. As such, if you find that you’re struggling with this step, don’t worry, and don’t get stuck; simply move on to the next step, which involves trying out various anti-procrastination techniques, until you find the ones that work best in your particular circumstances.

 

How to stop workplace procrastination

How to stop procrastinating at work yourself

If you need to stop procrastinating at work right now, you should identify the smallest possible step that you can take toward finishing what you should be doing, and then modify your environment to make it as likely as possible that you will take that step.

For example, if you need to write a report, the smallest possible step that you can take toward finishing it might be to create a rough initial outline of what it will look like. Once you identify what you need to do next, you can modify your work environment to help yourself achieve that, for example by getting a pen and some paper, and going somewhere with no distractions so you can focus and get this done.

In addition, there are various anti-procrastination techniques that can help you stop procrastinating at work, in both the short-term and the long-term. You don’t need to use all of these techniques, since some won’t be relevant in your case, and since even just a few of them will likely help you make significant progress toward overcoming your procrastination. As such, try skimming through this list, and find the techniques that you think will work best for you.

Improve your planning:

  • Set concrete goals. For example, instead of a vague goal, such as “work on this report next week”, set a concrete goal, such as “next week, starting Monday, work on this report every day from 9:00–11:00, and have a final draft ready to send out by Friday”.
  • Break your work into small and manageable steps. For example, if you need to develop a large project on your own, you can break it into steps such as figuring out the key target metrics and outlining a rough plan of what the project will entail. If the project that you’re dealing with is particularly large, then you generally shouldn’t worry about figuring out all the steps that you’ll need from the start. Instead, start by identifying only the first few steps that you need to take, and add new steps as you make progress, to avoid feeling overwhelmed and getting stuck at the beginning.
  • Set intermediate milestones and deadlines for yourself. For example, if a large project involves just one major deadline at the end, setting additional intermediate deadlines for yourself can help you plan ahead, be more accountable, and feel more motivated. Note that setting deadlines in general can be especially important if you don’t have any set for you by others, since a lack of deadlines can often lead to long-term procrastination.
  • Identify your productivity cycles. People have different levels of productivity when it comes to different tasks at different times of the day. For example, it may be the case that you’re best able to concentrate on difficult tasks early in the morning, before you’ve started dealing with emails or minor administrative aspects of your job. You should take this into account as much as possible when planning and scheduling your work.

Improve your environment:

  • Change your environment to make it easier for you to work. For example, if you know that you work best in a quiet environment, go somewhere quiet or put on noise-canceling headphones when necessary.
  • Change your environment to make it easier for yourself to get started. For example, if you know that you will need to make an important phone call tomorrow, which requires a lot of background material, then before you leave the office prepare everything that you need for the call, so that the only thing you need to do tomorrow is dial the number.
  • Change your environment to make it harder for yourself to procrastinate. For example, if you tend to procrastinate because you keep browsing social media, try using browser extensions that block your access to relevant sites.

Change your approach:

  • Start with the best or worst part first. Some people find that starting with the most enjoyable or easiest task of the day helps them get going, while others find that getting the worst task out of the way first helps them avoid procrastinating over time. You can use either approach if you find that it works well for you.
  • Add a time delay before you procrastinate. If you can’t avoid procrastinating entirely, try committing to having a time delay before you indulge your impulse to do so. For example, this can involve counting to 10 before you’re allowed to open a new tab on a social media app that you often use to procrastinate.
  • Use the Pomodoro technique. This involves alternating between scheduled periods of work and rest. For example, you can work on your task for 25-minute long stretches, with 5-minute breaks in between, and a longer 30-minute break after every 4 work sets that you complete.

Increase your motivation:

  • Reward yourself for making progress. Find ways to make your progress feel more rewarding, for example by gamifying your work and trying to achieve a streak of days on which you successfully manage to clear your to-do list.
  • Find ways to make your work more fun. For example, try listening to enjoyable music while working.
  • Visualize your future self. Visualizing your future self can motivate you to get your work done on time. This can involve, for example, visualizing yourself being able to relax after finishing, visualizing yourself being rewarded for making progress, or visualizing yourself having to handle the issues associated with missing an important deadline.
  • Focus on your goals instead of your tasks. For example, if you need to work on a task that you find boring, then instead of focusing on the task, try thinking about your general goals, such as that you want to get a promotion.

Change your mindset:

  • Give yourself permission to make mistakes. For example, if you’re tasked with writing a project proposal, accept that your work won’t be perfect, especially when it comes to the first draft. This is particularly important if you’re still a beginner, and have ‘learning’ as one of your main goals at work.
  • Figure out what you’re afraid of, and try to resolve your fears. For example, you might notice that you’re procrastinating on your work because you’re afraid of getting negative feedback from someone. To deal with it, you can do things such as get feedback from someone else, or realize that this negative feedback doesn’t actually matter.
  • Develop self-compassion. Self-compassion can help reduce your procrastination, as well as various issues that are associated with it, such as stress. It consists of three components that you should develop: 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.
  • Develop self-efficacy. Self-efficacy is the belief in your ability to carry out the actions that you need to achieve your goals, and it can help you reduce your procrastination. To develop self-efficacy, try to identify the various strategies that you can use to successfully achieve your goals at work, and think about your ability to execute those strategies successfully.

Whether or not a given technique will be effective and practical depends on various factors, such as the level of autonomy you have at your job. For example, while it can be beneficial to improve your work environment by eliminating distractions, this might not be something that’s possible for you to do at your job.

In addition, anti-procrastination techniques are generally most effective when they’re tailored to the specific causes of your procrastination. For example, if you’re a freelancer who procrastinates on work because you feel overwhelmed with a large project, it’s important to use techniques that make that project feel less overwhelming, such as breaking it apart into small manageable steps.

Furthermore, if you suffer from an underlying issue that causes procrastination, you will likely need to resolve that issue to successfully overcome your procrastination. For example, if you have ADHD or depression, you might need to get professional help in order to deal with your issue, if you want to stop procrastinating at work. This will also have the added benefit of reducing the negative impact that such issues can have on other areas of your life.

Finally, there are two other important things to keep in mind, when it comes to avoiding workplace procrastination:

  • Most people need more than one technique in order to overcome their procrastination.
  • Different techniques work better for different people in different circumstances.

As such, don’t expect a single technique to solve all your problems, and don’t feel that if some technique works well for others then it will necessarily also work well for you. Instead, try out the various techniques that are available to you, until you figure out which ones work best for you, in your particular situation.

Overall, to stop procrastinating at work, you should start by identifying the smallest step that you can take toward achieving your goals, and then modify your environment in order to make it easier for you to take that step. In addition, you should also figure the causes of your procrastination, and then use relevant anti-procrastination techniques, such as setting concrete goals, breaking tasks into manageable steps, and giving yourself permission to make mistakes.

 

How to reduce employee procrastination

When it comes to helping your employees stop procrastinating, there are three main approaches you can use:

  • A management-led approach. This involves the managers at the organization changing the work environment and using relevant techniques to reduce the employees’ procrastination, without giving employees an active and aware role in the process. For example, this can involve setting concrete goals and intermediate deadlines for employees, without explaining that the goal of doing so is to reduce procrastination.
  • An employee-led approach. This involves prompting employees to overcome their procrastination with little to no guidance or intervention from management. This can involve, for example, simply mentioning the problem of procrastination and giving employees a link to a relevant guide on the topic, but otherwise letting them tackle this problem on their own.
  • A joint approach. This involves combining guidance and assistance from management together with encouraging employees to play an active and aware role in reducing their procrastination. For example, this can involve explaining the value of intermediate deadlines when it comes to avoiding procrastination, and then encouraging employees to set such deadlines for themselves, with the help of their managers if needed.

None of these approaches are inherently superior to the others. Accordingly, you should decide which one to use based on factors such as the way employees procrastinate and the reason why they do so. This is something that’s also important to take into account in the next stage, where you decide which specific anti-procrastination interventions to implement and how.

In terms of specific anti-procrastination interventions you can implement, see the list in the previous section, and consider how you can either implement them for employees or help employees implement them directly. For example, this can involve setting intermediate milestones and deadlines, rewarding people for making progress, and changing the work environment in order to make it easier for people to focus. To ensure that the techniques are as effective as possible, you should try to tailor them to the specific needs and preferences of your employees, by understanding the issues that cause them to procrastinate in the first place.

Specific interventions for reducing workplace procrastination can be implemented at both the individual and organizational levels. For example, increasing people’s accountability can sometimes help reduce their procrastination. On an individual level, a manager might decide to increase the accountability of a specific member of their team, who is prone to procrastination and who needs this in order to be more productive. On an organizational level, an executive might implement a system for monitoring productivity across the various teams at the company, to reduce general levels of procrastination.

Note that your interventions should generally aim to support employees as much as possible. This means that you should be trying to help employees avoid procrastination, rather than forcing them to do so, since interventions that antagonize employees can often be counterproductive, by leading to issues such as resentment, anxiety, and low motivation, which are problematic by themselves and which can also increase procrastination.

Supportive interventions can take various forms. For example, providing employees with time-management training has been shown to help reduce procrastination at work, and to also reduce employee stress and increase their job satisfaction. Similarly, developing proper leadership skills among managers can also be beneficial; for example, transformational leaders, who are responsive to the individual needs of their employees and who provide them with inspirational motivation and intellectual stimulation, have been shown to reduce procrastination among their employees.

In this regard, note that when it comes to modifying the level of autonomy that employees have, it is important to balance it based on the needs of the organization and on the employees’ ability. On the one hand, too low autonomy can lead to issues such as stress and anxiety, which can lead to increased procrastination. On the other hand, too high of autonomy can lead to situations where people feel lost, or where they end up not having the deadlines that they need in order to get work done in a timely manner.

Finally, note that just because an employee is putting off a task, that doesn’t mean that they’re procrastinating. For example, it might be that they’re engaging in strategic delay, because that task is less urgent than a different task that they’re currently working on, or because it’s better from a bureaucratic perspective to delay this task until they have more information.

Similarly, just because an employee isn’t engaging in work-related activities, that doesn’t mean that they’re procrastinating. For example, employees might be engaging in recovery at work, which occurs when employees engage in respite activities during work hours, such as resting, relaxing, or socializing, often with the goal of restoring attentional resources and recharging their energy levels, in a way that leads to improved performance over time.

Overall, you can reduce employee procrastination by using appropriate anti-procrastination techniques, that can be either implemented by the management, by the employees, or by both of them jointly. The techniques that you use should be tailored to the employees’ needs and preferences, and support the employees as much as possible rather than antagonize them. In addition, it’s important to understand that just because an employee is postponing a task or engaging in a non-work-related activity, that doesn’t mean that they’re procrastinating, and such behaviors can often be beneficial to both the employee and to their employer.

 

Additional resources for dealing with workplace procrastination

In addition to the present article, there are several important resources that can help people learn how to deal with workplace procrastination:

 

Summary

  • Workplace procrastination, which involves unnecessarily postponing work-related tasks, is a prevalent phenomenon, that can lead to issues both for the people who procrastinate and for their employers.
  • Workplace procrastination can take various forms, such as browsing social media or taking long breaks, though just because an employee postpones a task or engages in a non-work-related activity that doesn’t mean that they’re procrastinating.
  • People procrastinate at work because issues such as exhaustion and anxiety outweigh their self-control and motivation; common causes of workplace procrastination include fear of failure, lack of motivation, and a problematic work environment.
  • To stop procrastinating at work, you should start by identifying the smallest step that you can take toward achieving your goals, and then modify your environment in order to make it easier for you to take that step; you can also figure the causes of your procrastination, and use relevant anti-procrastination techniques, such as setting concrete goals and breaking tasks into manageable steps.
  • To reduce employee procrastination, you should use appropriate anti-procrastination interventions, which can be implemented either by the management, by the employees, or by both of them together; these interventions should be tailored to the employees’ needs and preferences, and support them as much as possible rather than antagonize them.