Imagine you have asked one of your team who hates writing reports to write a report you need for a senior management presentation in 2 weeks time. You only gave the task to him because he is the expert on the subject and you are dreading the moment when you will have to find out if he has done the report. Sure enough, with 2 days to go you check in and nothing has been done. You get plenty of excuses – been too busy – murmur some displeasure and go off to write the report yourself.
Instead of vowing to never delegate a task to this person again, you may want to consider what behavioural psychology and economics have learned about procrastination in the last 20 or so years. According to widely cited research about 20% of adults chronically procrastinate. This is not only difficult for the individuals themselves, but also a recurring problem for leaders who have to manage procrastinators in the workplace. So why do we habitually procrastinate and what can we as individuals and leaders do about it?
Fortunately, research by social psychologists and behavioural economists has provided some fascinating insights into the true nature of procrastination. This research has dispelled some common myths and identified the key factors that correlate with procrastinating behaviour. We already know that for chronic procrastinators the behaviour is sufficiently stable over time and situations to be considered a personality trait. But what core traits is it related to? Common assumptions include that procrastination is related to anxiety, depression, fear of failure, perfectionism, level of intrinsic motivation and even low intelligence. If you believe any of the above to be true, you are not on your own in being wrong. None of the factors listed is correlated with procrastination.
What the research has shown is that the strongest correlation is between procrastination and lack of self-control (or impulsiveness). The more a person is prone to boredom and the lower their level of conscientiousness, the more likely they are to procrastinate. If you are familiar with the DISC personality profile, this corresponds to high I behaviour being prone to procrastination and on the opposite end high C being the least susceptible. That’s all great you might say, but it doesn’t help me in any way to manage procrastination in myself or others!
Quite right, it is a personality trait, so not easily changed (or controlled). To find a way past this apparent deadlock, we need to better understand what else procrastination might be related to, especially when it comes to external factors that can be changed or controlled.
Now it’s easy to see that procrastination has something to do with time, since it’s all about delaying action despite the knowledge that doing so might have adverse consequences. The way it relates to time is through the way we perceive the value of distant rewards (i.e. the value of completing the task). As it turns out, the further away the reward is, the less we value it. This is called hyperbolic discounting.
For example, if you offer people $20 now or $100 in a years time, most people will take the $20. This terribly puzzles economists who (mostly) believe that humans rationally weigh potential rewards and then rationally make a decision about how to maximise their reward. Alas, that’s not now humans really work – and what’s rational anyway?
To translate this insight into managing procrastination we need to look at the deadline of the task and the size of the potential reward at the end (compared to other rewards available earlier). Firstly, giving a procrastinator a task without a deadline is futile. There will always be other distractions that are more attractive than the task and/or offer quicker rewards.
The research has found that the best way to manage the effect of hyperbolic discounting is to break up the task into smaller sub-tasks and attach a reward to the completion of each of the sub-tasks. This means you have to set deadlines for the completion of each sub-task. It is better for the manager to set the deadline than for the individual to set their own. The reason here is not that self-imposed deadlines are not effective, they are. The reason is that self-imposed deadlines are sub-optimal. Not surprisingly, procrastinators will tend to set deadlines further out in the future than they need to be. To summarise, lesson number one in dealing with procrastinators is: Break the task up into sub-tasks and set deadlines for the completion of each sub-task.
This is not the end of the story though. Deadlines become more effective if you impose penalties for missing them. Motivation to tackle the task and complete it can then come either from the potential reward or from avoiding the pain inflicted by the penalty. The penalty may be missing out on a promotion, a performance bonus or not being able to attend a conference or training program. No matter what an appropriate penalty may be in your situation, the penalty needs to be meaningful, in the same way that the reward needs to be meaningful. So lesson number two is: Offer rewards for task completion and impose penalties for missing deadlines.
Next we need to look at the actual attractiveness of the task to be performed. Obviously, the more attractive a task is perceived as, the less likely you are going to encounter procrastination. So this is more about matching the right people to the right tasks, as normally you would have limited control over what tasks need to be performed. After hyperbolic discounting task averseness has the biggest impact of the level procrastination.
Improving task attractiveness may take a fair level of imagination from the leader, or alternatively you might want to break up the task between different people who are motivated to do their particular sub-tasks. In either case, it is well known that intrinsic motivation is far stronger than extrinsic motivation – you would have to offer a far greater reward to motivate someone to do a task they are not intrinsically motivated to do. This leads to lesson number 3: Pick the person to do the (sub-)task who is most intrinsically motivated to do it.
Intrinsic motivation to do the task will usually depend on the person’s level of belief that they can successfully complete it. We tend to be most motivated to complete a task that stretches us a bit beyond our current level of capability. You know this from SMART goal setting already – the goal needs to be achievable and realistic. What psychology adds to this is that ideally the task will stretch us just beyond our current level of skill.
The last piece of the procrastination puzzle might be the hardest one to manage in business today – reducing the level of distractions. As we mentioned at the beginning, the people most prone to procrastination are also the people most easily distracted – people with high levels of impulsiveness. This means that you need to make an effort to reduce the temptation of working on something else, be that answering emails, another task or even updating your Facebook status.
Given the torrent of information most workers are subjected to and the popularity of multi-tasking (which is proven to reduce performance, by the way), it should come as no surprise that affecting the levels of distraction may be the hardest factor to control. Still, lesson number 4 is:Reduce the level of available distractions.
So to come back to the example from the beginning, you may want to split the report writing task across 2 people. In addition to the subject matter expert you decide to put a highly conscientious person in charge of the report. You might also offer her a reward for keeping the subject matter expert on track in providing the necessary input (which may be verbal if the person hates writing).
Instead of relying on the 2-week deadline, you may further set a one week deadline to see a first draft and delay a number of less critical tasks the 2 team members have been working on to reduce the level of distractions. Not rocket science, but highly effective in practice.
So don’t delay and start dealing with procrastinators today!