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.
Examples of workplace procrastination
An example of workplace procrastination is someone who watches funny videos on the internet, when they should be working on an important project instead. 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, like reading unimportant emails.
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.
Types of workplace procrastination
It’s possible to draw a distinction between two main types of workplace procrastination:
- Online workplace procrastination. This is also referred to as cyberslacking (or cyberloafing), 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.
However, workplace procrastination can also involve engaging in beneficial workplace activities, as a productive way to postpone engaging in activities that are more important.
In addition, workplace procrastination is sometimes viewed as behavior that must not involve an intention to cause harm (e.g., toward the employer, workplace, client, colleagues, or the employee themselves). But, people can also unnecessarily postpone tasks due to such intent, or for related reasons, like resentment toward their boss, and from a practical perspective, this may be viewed as workplace procrastination by their employer.
Likewise, for delay to be considered procrastination, there technically must be no practical benefit for the procrastinator, so if an employee strategically postpones a critical task due to an upcoming negotiation with their management, this technically isn’t considered procrastination. Nevertheless, this too may be practically considered as workplace procrastination by an employer.
Accordingly, though there are different categorizations of workplace procrastination, in its broadest and most practical sense it’s 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 working on trivial tasks instead.
Prevalence of workplace procrastination
Workplace procrastination is a common phenomenon, which affects people at all seniority levels, from junior employees to senior executives, who are working in various jobs, like administration, sales, retail, service, design, writing, law, research, teaching, and management. This is unsurprising, since procrastination is common in general, with around 20% of adults procrastinating chronically.
However, the prevalence and severity of workplace procrastination vary based on various factors, like whether a job is white- or blue-collar. Some of this variation is due to selection, in terms of which jobs procrastinators apply to and are hired for. Much of this is also due to various aspects of the work environment that can make people more likely to procrastinate, like distractions, lack of clear communication from bosses, lack of support from colleagues, and unstructured or self-structured projects. This means that in a poor-enough work environment, even a highly conscientious person might procrastinate, whereas in a good-enough environment, even a chronic procrastinator might do things on time.
In addition, the influence of the work environment depends on factors relating to the workers themselves. For example, while some people thrive in situations with high autonomy, others need more guidance. Similarly, while extroverts might thrive while working in a team, introverts might need to work more independently. Furthermore, various personal factors, like lack of sleep, can also make people more likely to procrastinate at work.
Dangers of workplace procrastination
Workplace procrastination can cause various issues. For employees, this includes worse job performance, worse career prospects, and worse mental health. For employers, this includes lower productivity, lower job satisfaction, and lower employee retention.
Specifically, for employees, 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), and having lower general financial success (including due to problematic financial behaviors). It’s also associated with other issues, like stress and emotional exhaustion, which worsen people’s emotional wellbeing, as well as their mental and physical health.
For employers, workplace procrastination among employees leads to worse performance and lower productivity. For example, when employees spend hours of their workday procrastinating, they make less progress than they could, and often have to rush to complete tasks right before deadlines, which can also lead to low-quality work.
Similarly, procrastination can interfere with collaboration among team members who depend on each others’ work. Such issues can be exacerbated when the procrastinator is in a leadership position, especially if their behavior negatively impacts their subordinates.
All these issues can also hurt employees’ job satisfaction, for example if they feel frustrated with the pace in their work environment. This can further reduce their productivity and performance, and can also make them more likely to want to switch jobs, which hurts employee retention.
Why people procrastinate at work
People procrastinate at work because issues such as exhaustion and anxiety outweigh their self-control and motivation. These issues include personal factors, like fear and task aversion, and situational factors, like distractions and lack of support.
Specifically, when people need to get work done, they rely primarily on their self-control in order to get themselves 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 issues that interfere with or oppose their self-control and motivation, such as exhaustion and anxiety. When these issues are stronger than 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 always procrastinate 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 afraid that a failure will reflect badly on them.
- Anxiety, for example when people are anxious about being evaluated by others.
- 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.
- Physical or mental exhaustion, for example when people are tired and burned out after working too much for too long.
- 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).
How to stop procrastinating at work
If you need to stop procrastinating at work right now, you should identify the smallest possible thing you can do to make progress, and then modify your environment to make it as likely as possible that you will do it.
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.
There are many other anti-procrastination techniques that can help you stop procrastinating at work. 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’s ability to handle certain tasks varies based on factors such as the time of 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 a tiny step. For example, if you need to write a report, help yourself get started by committing to only write a single sentence at first. This can help you push yourself to get started on tasks, and often, once you do so, you’ll find it easy to keep going.
- 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:
- Make work feel more rewarding. For example, you can give gamify your work by trying to achieve a streak of days on which you successfully manage to complete all the tasks on your to-do list.
- Make your work feel more enjoyable. For example, you can listen to music that you like while you work.
- Visualize your future self. For example, you can visualize yourself being able to relax after finishing, visualize yourself being rewarded for making progress, or visualize 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.
- Address 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 perform the actions needed 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, keep in mind that most people need more than one technique to overcome their procrastination, and different techniques work better for different people in different circumstances. Accordingly, 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 identify the smallest possible thing you can do to make progress, and then modify your environment to make it as likely as possible that you will do it. 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 employees’ procrastination
You can use several approaches to reduce employees’ workplace procrastination:
- 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.
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’ abilities. On the one hand, too low autonomy can cause issues like 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.