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Workplace Procrastination, Employee Engagement, and Asking Different Questions

In the last post, we figured out how to stop wishing we had more time. Thank God! Because it gets really annoying after a while. On the flipside, sometimes we wish we had no time. For certain projects, you know?

My favorite method of procrastinating is to read funny articles on procrastination.

For example, this guy is a riot:
http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastinate.html

Watch his Ted talk too (I embedded it in this blog post, below). You’ll laugh and you’ll remember him next time you are tempted to put off some crazy-important stuff.

But before you watch it, remember, we are here to talk about employee engagement. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that procrastination is disengagement. You may not hate the totality of your work. (I don’t. And Tim Urban, the hysterically funny voice of WaitButWhy.com certainly doesn’t either.) But we have all most certainly disengaged from the particular tasks we have been procrastinating.

When you are mentally engaged, you have the opposite problem: you can’t stop. You can’t stop thinking about work. You can’t wait to get your hands on it. You are bursting with questions and ideas. You shut out all distractions. You hunt down your sources, and you get your answers in minutes.

We all act this way at certain times. So, how is it that the rest of the time we are the enemy of our own success?

Granted, nobody gets an adrenaline rush to chase down every last thing on his to-do list. When we legitimately postpone some tasks in order to give our full attention to others, it’s called prioritizing. When we prioritize less important tasks, it’s called procrastination. And it boggles our minds to observe it first-hand. Especially when procrastinators are us and the consequences are severe.

The odd part is that procrastinators want the job done as much as the go-getters. The difference is that procrastinators won’t take action. They whole-heartedly wish for the end result, but they'll have nothing to do with the work of making it happen. It’s useless to refute their logic and expose their flaws. Just as it is useless to try to talk ourselves out of procrastination. We already know it. And we are already ashamed of ourselves.

We need help. And we get it. Life coaching. Self-help. TED Talks… We swallow tons of expert advice and even try to follow it. We set an earlier deadline that we know we are going to miss. And we break up the project into ten smaller, less intimidating steps. And still we procrastinate.

The reason popular anti-procrastination strategies don’t work for us is that none of them do anything to engage us. If you loath your task, you are going to procrastinate it. It makes no difference how much you despise yourself and upset others. As Tim Urban points out, nothing but extreme fear and pressure will ever move you to action.

But I am not here to remind people that they’ll soon be dead, with all of their life’s work unfinished and some of it not even started. If you’re up for the inconvenient truth, Tim does it way better (and funnier) than I.

For my part, I invite you to take a kinder, gentler, Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? approach. Namely, to ask yourself: what makes a particular task so loathsome that you would risk humiliation and failure in order to avoid it? And, how might you be moved to engage in it?

I find myself resisting work mainly for three reasons:

  1. I never ever want to do it.
    Like cleaning my house. I find that the best way to deal with these kinds of chores is to delegate them. I hire house cleaners. And what if you are a house cleaner, Tim? Okay, if we are talking work-work and there is no one to delegate to, well, you have to find ways to improve the process. Can you eliminate or automate some steps? Short of that, I’d look for a new job.
  2. I don’t know where to start.
    Like me publishing a book. Look, it’s always discouraging when you not only have few answers, but struggle to ask an intelligent question. If you find yourself in this situation, recognize that you simply need more information. Put all pressure aside and shift your focus to getting the knowledge you need to proceed with confidence.
  3. I am terrified of making a fool of myself.
    Like me taking public speaking engagements. This is similar to #2 above, except that no amount of research gets me psyched about the task. In this case procrastination may be justified. It may be my survival instinct telling me that I’m not ready. Our primitive brain is not always wrong. I may not want to be its slave at all times, but dismissing it wholesale is not wise either.

To sum up, procrastination is not the enemy we think it is. It’s only the messenger. And its message is that you’re disengaged from the work you need to do. When we fight procrastination with all of our strength, we miss the real target. We ignore the real threat and lose the real opportunity to troubleshoot the relationship with our work.

When we procrastinate our own projects, a little honesty goes a long way. All we need to do is to stop being passive aggressive and to directly confront the problem. The solution could be as simple as the three scenarios I described above. Notice that in two out of three cases, the bothersome task has forever disappeared from my to-do list. This is precisely what we aim for. Not to trick ourselves or others to toil in misery. But to do the work that fully engages us—by either eliminating the loathsome tasks or changing the way we approach them.

Workplace procrastination, on the other hand, has many more complicating factors. Like career path, access to resources, relationship with the boss, and company policies. All these serve to either engage and energize us—or to turn us into hardened procrastinators.

Each of these topics deserves a separate and detailed investigation. Because they lie at the core of every productivity, quality, and creativity issue companies face today. I go through them case-by-case in Who the Hell Wants to Work for You?. If you are a manager, you are likely find your challenge in the book and see how others have handled it. Same if you aspire to rise through the ranks or run your own company some day. The sooner you learn to understand and motivate real people, the smoother will be your ride.

When you see procrastination in yourself or others, don’t rush to tighten the screws. Find out what makes it their least favorite project. Are they well matched to the tasks? Do they know where to get help? Do they feel empowered and supported?

What you discover may not only help one person complete one project. It may help you transform the entire company.

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If you procrastinate like me, you might like my book... because it makes a great distraction, and it just might psych you up about work again.

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Tim Eisenhauer
About Tim Eisenhauer
Tim is the author of Who the Hell Wants to Work for You? Break Down the Invisible Barriers to Employee Engagement. He's also a co-founder and president of Axero, a technology company that makes intranet software for businesses. He's spilt insightful ink on the pages of Fortune, Forbes, TIME, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, and other top publications.

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