We all know (or might even be!) aprocrastinator.
They may be a coworker who never gets their work done on time, or a friend or family member who is always late. They waste our time and theirs and, in many cases, may cost us or our employers money.
To effectively manage people like this, it's important to understand the root causes and apply techniques that help them overcome their procrastinating tendencies.
Portrait of a procrastinator
Minnie, a chronic procrastinator, says:
Growing up, it felt like I could never do anything right. My parents never praised me for any of my accomplishments and even when someone did, they would snatch the joy away from me.
'Oh! Minnie is getting fantastic grades this semester!'
'Yeah, well, I doubt she keeps it up,' my father would respond.
If Minnie was on your team and she was a chronic procrastinator, it would make sense given her background.
Three things are common in chronic procrastinators:
feeling like a victim
a fear of failure
People don't procrastinate because they're careless! They actually tend to be very hard on themselves, acting as self-micromanagers who expect perfection.
Because they can never meet the perfection they impose on themselves, they sometimes feel anxiety that manifests as physical pain and immobilizes them.
To successfully manage such people, be a consultant instead of a micromanager. Start by offering support without judging their character. This helps to facilitate good habits by not feeding into the negative feelings that are already overwhelming them.
Get them to commit, not comply
Attempting to force compliance is a managerial style that can make employees feel powerless and resentful. This could provoke the employee to rebel against rules and dictates.
Avoid demands of compliance such as:
"You better finish this before you leave for the day."
"Do this assignment exactly as I told you to do it."
"I am the boss, so you must listen to exactly what I say."
Instead, invite procrastinators to commit to something:
"How much can you have done by the end of the day?"
"Let's follow the guidelines closely so there aren't any surprises. If you have some concerns with that, be sure to let me know! I'm here to listen."
"I am responsible for getting this project done, so I would like to ask you to please help me deliver something the client is satisfied with. I appreciate your help."
Quiz: Minnie and Harold Part 1
Minnie's manager, Harold Dooblebarm, is wondering how to get Minnie to complete a last-minute project by the end of the week. Here are some possible ways he can explain the task to her:
A: "We have a new project that needs to be done by Friday. Do it and do it well."
B: "I may be demoted or fired if this project isn't completed by Friday. If we can't turn it around because you're slacking off, I'll never forget it."
C: "This project is very important for our team. I would greatly appreciate it if you could help me out by getting it done on time. If you need anything, let me know."
D: "Let's start one step at a time. How much do you think you can get done each day?"
What should Harold Dooblebarm say to Minnie? Select all that apply:
Work in increments
Procrastinators often start a project by only thinking about the end result and the enormity of the task ahead of them. This makes them feel anxious and overwhelmed.
Avoid saying things that focus on the end result, such as:
"When will you finish this project?"
"We have a lot of work to do."
"The deadline is only one month away."
Instead, focus on the start and the step-by-step milestones that come after:
"When can you start on a first draft?"
"If you can get this first step done by the end of the week, we'll be on target."
"We have a month to meet the deadline. We can easily do that if you get started now and get me the first two phases done by Friday."
Which approach should Harold Dooblebarm take?
Quiz: Minnie and Harold Part 2
Harold Dooblebarm is considering two approaches for getting Minnie to complete the project on time:
We have huge project due in two months. Minnie is going to be in charge of the bulk of it. I know she'll do a great job if she is motivated. I am thinking of asking her to set a timeline with subdeadlines that can be completed incrementally.
This project we have due in two months is huge. Minnie is a great designer but she slacks off. I should emphasize the size of this project and how close the deadline is to her. I need to get it into her head how enormous the task ahead is.
Which approach should Harold Dooblebarm take?
Criticism doesn't get results
Criticism of someone's work and threats against their livelihood aren't likely to bring good results. In fact, they'll likely do the opposite by creating more anxiety and creating a greater block to creativity and productivity.
Avoid criticisms such as:
"You can never get anything done on time. What is wrong with you?"
"Did you wait until the last minute to write this report? I can tell..."
"What a shoddy project you've completed. Maybe if you didn't put it off until right before the deadine, you might have done a good job."
Instead, offer praise with suggestions for improvement:
"I really liked how you approached this project. I think you can do an even better job next time if you get started early and set a realistic timeline with sub-deadlines."
"Your report was clear and concise! Just make sure to give yourself enough time for the next one so you can make the appropriate edits before it is due."
"You did an excellent job on the project all around. I'd like you to be more cognizant of the guidelines next time to satisfy stakeholders."
Quiz: Minnie and Harold Part 3
Minnie is discouraged when Harold confronts her after she hands in the project. She thinks:
I can't believe how Mr. Dooblebarm treated me after the hard work I put into the project. He said my work looks like I saved it until the last minute and he threatened to fire me. I really don't deserve to be treated like this especially after spending my free time in the office working on it. Maybe next time I'll put less effort into it.
If Harold Dooblebarm could do over his conversation with Minnie, how could he better approach the situation?
Mr. Dooblebarm is so confusing! First, he said Project A was a priority, so we got started on that. Then suddenly, he pivoted and said to focus our efforts on Project C. This clown doesn't know what he wants!
He has never acknowledged any of the hard work and quality output we've done so far. It's like it doesn't even exist...I don't know if making any more effort on these projects is worth it.
Here are some additional tips to make sure your employees or coworkers don't feel this way:
Be clear and consistent with your priorities. If you often change up the priorities, your staff may adapt by procrastinating because they will expect you to do it again.
Be decisive. Don't make your employees do difficult and time consuming tasks and then change your mind and ask them to redo them or do something different. Sticking with your decisions helps to maintain your credibility.
Reward fairly and frequently. Give small and regular acknowledgement for work well done. Reward employees when they meet subgoals and sub-deadlines. This helps workers feel a sense of achievement every step of the way.
A new and improved Harold Dooblebarm says:
Minnie did a fantastic job on this project. I told her the importance of the project and emphasized her impact on its success. I then suggested she set subdeadlines and subgoals and she did...and she met all of them!
Along the way, I gave her fair and frequent feedback that acknowledged her successes and offered suggestions for room for improvement. I think it really helped that I set clear priorities from the beginning and was decisive in my decision making. I am thrilled with how well this project turned out!