Guilty of gossiping at the coffee machine or pretending to look extra busy when you’re really booking holidays?
You could be a workplace procrastinator.
But rest assured, you are not alone: 15 to 20 per cent of the population are “chronic procrastinators”, according to a US study by psychologist and procrastination researcher Joseph Ferrari.
But what is workplace procrastination and should you feel guilty? And say you wanted to fix this habit — how would you go about it?
‘Emotional and far from rational’
Procrastination is the act of voluntarily delaying tasks, despite knowing this will lead to negative consequences.
“It is entirely emotional and far from rational — you can procrastinate at work but not in other daily aspects of life,” Fuschia Sirois, a psychology professor at Durham University, told Euronews Next.
“People don’t procrastinate when they have pleasant things to do, but rather when they are assigned tasks which induce negative emotions such as anxiety or boredom,” added Sirois.
Two terms — cyberslacking and cyberloafing — have become commonplace, referring to employees who look busy when they are really surfing the internet for personal use.
The way we procrastinate may have evolved, but the action is as old as time. The 18th-century poet Edward Young called procrastination “the thief of time”.
According to a 2022 study, people procrastinate with the idea that tasks will be easier in the future.
But Sirois argued that the satisfaction of producing work at the last minute is outweighed by the negative impact of “stress and anxiety”.
Does ‘positive procrastination’ exist?
“Positive procrastination” is the idea that leaving tasks to the very last minute produces the same — or even better results.
In his 2012 book, The Art of Procrastination, John Perry, a professor at Stanford University, argues that it can be used for productivity.
His manual for structured procrastination invites readers to place the most daunting task at the top of their to-do list, which makes all ensuing tasks seem easier.
For Timothy Pychyl, a retired professor of psychology from Carleton University in Canada, the idea of positive procrastination is simply a case of “turning a vice into a virtue”.
“Thinking you’re being productive by cleaning out your fridge when you have an urgent work deadline is still procrastination,” he told Euronews Next.
A UK survey of 2,000 workers estimated that Brits spend a little over 2 hours each day procrastinating.
Experts say procrastinators come in all shapes and sizes with perfectionists among them.
“Perfectionists can spend hours putting off sending an email because they are trying to send the perfect response, whereas anxious people have a far lower tolerance to the stress triggered by procrastination,” said Sirois.
Employees can be to blame, but some workplaces promote what she calls a “procrastogenic environment”.
“People will procrastinate on tasks that are ambiguous and lack clear deadlines. This can also be the case if they don’t have easily available support,” she added.
This can be exacerbated by working from home.
“You can easily be distracted in the time you have to send an email and then wait however long for someone to reply to get on with your task.”
“During the pandemic, there were studies around people procrastinating more. They were working from home which can lead to more distractions but people were also dealing with a general higher level of stress».
How do you stop yourself from procrastinating?
“You need to find a way to reduce negative emotions which trigger anxiety and lead to procrastination. No amount of time management skills can heal this,” said Sirois.
For perfectionists, many worry about the outcome of their decisions.
But Sirois explained that “in reality, people imagine that they will be far more upset and impacted by the negative outcome of a situation than they really are”.
“Being self-compassionate may sound counterintuitive because we tend to be hard on people who procrastinate. But sometimes you need to accept that you’re struggling with an issue external from work and communicate around this”.