Douglas Adams (1952-2001) author of “The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” said – “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

Author: Nicosmos (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

Why are most people so prone to procrastination ?
Why do so many of us keep putting off things that we know need to be done ?

I actually know a significant number of colleagues (as well as friends I was with at school) who convinced themselves that “they worked best when under pressure”. This meant that they could justify to themselves and all around them,that their best approach was to leave everything till the last possible minute. They could then do a panic-induced, adrenalin-driven rush to complete the task at hand, and would seriously believe that the result was their best work.

Author: Sallybradford; via Wikimedia Commons

This ability to procrastinate appears to be as prevalent in CEOs preparing for a shareholder meeting as it is to low level staff asked to complete a relatively simple task.

I believe that there are 4 main reasons why people tend to procrastinate, and you will need to learn how to handle these within yourself, and also in your subordinates if you are a manager.

1. When the task is so large it seems overwhelming.

When we are presented with a large task, it is often hard enough just to see how it can even be started let alone how it can be achieved, and we can become totally overwhelmed by the task. The only solution is to just accept the age-old advice that the only way to eat an elephant is to do it one bite at a time. However it is not just enough to start with trying to break down the one massive task into many small “bite-sized” tasks, but most importantly you have to do it as soon as possible. The problem with these elephant tasks is that with the passing of time they tend to grow in size and perceived complexity to reach mammoth and mastodon sizes. The quicker you can break a large task down into its smaller composite pieces, the sooner you can start to tackle parts of the project that can be attacked and resolved in a reasonable time, and the sooner you can see which parts of this project can be allocated to other people around you.

2. Fear of failure

Many people have a problem with procrastination because they are so obsessed with being right that they have built a belief that the only workable solution is a 100% solution, which then paralyses their ability to act. The most afflicted are the “Super-analytics”. These people are so task perfection driven that they can never have enough data to actually make a decision. If you give one of these people 100 days to complete a task, they will spend 99 days doing research and gathering as much data as possible and the 100th day trying to convince you that they are almost there, but if you could just give them another 100 days to complete the task they will be able to come up with the perfect solution. Trust me on this … they won’t. The solution is to not give large complex tasks to people like this, but to give them to people who understand that 100% solutions only exist in fairy tales and business school case studies, and who are driven to deliver a well thought through, well-constructed solution that can be implemented, and that has more than just a reasonable chance of success.

Author: Pablo X (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

3. It’s just the way some people are built

Some people seem to have made procrastination an integral part of their personality. They are easily distracted, do not have a lot of self-control and find it very hard to make decisions about their lives. These are the people we all know who are always “about to start a diet” or “about to start saving for a big holiday” or “about to start learning French”, but never quite get around to actually doing it. The only way to manage these people (if you actually do want to keep them in your team) is to take the decision and planning out of their hands. If you need them to do something, make it a mandatory part of their schedule. For example … “every Monday, every week from 9-11.00am you will be in this room to do this task”, or “every Friday at 5,00pm you will put on my desk your weekly report. You will schedule one hour every Friday from 3.00-4.00pm for this task and no other”. If you can take the uncertainty out of their lives, they can actually perform the tasks that are assigned to them but they do take extra management time.

4. People tend to put off doing unpleasant tasks

It’s never easy to get around to doing a boring or unpleasant task whether this as pedestrian as preparing a report for someone in a position of power knowing that this will never actually be used for anything worthwhile, or as tough as having to haul someone over the coals for unacceptable behaviour.
To handle something like the former, I would always try and treat it as sport by challenging myself to insert things in the report that would not only test whether the recipient actually read it, but if s/he did, whether s/he was actually smart enough to find them. Just in case s/he did read it, it was always done in ways that I could always blame on “typos”, after all s/he was in a position of authority. Doing it this way made it challenging and turned it into a more pleasant task.
As for the latter, I have always found that delaying something tough, like feedback on behaviour, will never make it easier than it is if done immediately on seeing it or on finding out about it. The longer the time that you allow to pass, the more the perpetrator will believe that it is acceptable behaviour and the harder it will be for you to address. Do it immediately and get it done when the rebuke and correction will have the most effect.

Author: L'Aquatique (own work); via Wikimedia Commons

As Olin Miller says “If you want to make an easy job seem mighty hard, just keep putting off doing it.”



  1. John says:

    when my students at an American university were asked about their greatest weaknesses, the most common response was procrastination. My experience showed them to be high achieving students with a high work load who consistently met thir deadlines. Certainly one silver lining was their ability to work under pressure. They were diligent students who set high standards for themselves. how does this compare with your own experience?

  2. leshayman says:

    I think it is wonderful to have an ability to work under pressure as the real world tends to demand this, but I still believe that it is better to be somewhat better organised.
    I believe that people tend towards doing the urgent things (because they are obvious) rather than the important things (which tend to be harder to define and address).
    The difference is whether you wish to be externally driven or whether you understand that it is better to set your own schedule and timelines as much as possible.
    I have seen people who are behind schedule on a project spend a day doing emails, rather than focussing on the more critical task at hand … maybe because they have hit a barrier in the project that may be hard to break down.
    We all procrastinate on some things, for different reasons, and you can still do OK if you are a bit of a procrastinator, but you will achieve a lot more if you learn how to plan your time better.

  3. Roisin says:

    As a procrastinator par excellence (but one who always managed to meet deadlines – just) this post could have been written for me. Thank you, Les. Spot on, as usual.

  4. leshayman says:

    Roisin … I have always seen you as being decisive and task oriented … like a successful author must be.

  5. Stefanie says:

    I really like this post. It reminds me of my years as student. We had to do a lot of reports in small teams and someday I discovered this quote of Douglas Adams with the whooshing deadlines and then inserted it as slogan into my private email-footer. Not because I liked procrastination but because I wanted to convince my fellow-students that we should start early and not only if it became urgent.
    However, today I find me more often to procrastinate tasks perhaps because I dislike elephant meat 😀 But I will try to remember your post then and smile. Smiling makes work much easier.
    Stefanie (of umantis)

  6. leshayman says:

    Stefanie … I have also long loved the Douglas Adams quote.
    We all procrastinate sometimes. The concern is only if it becomes a habit.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: