Is It a Break, Or Are You Procrastinating?

Do you procrastinate? Do you delay doing the things you say you want to do, such as starting a hard task at work or beginning a new exercise regimen? Is it really procrastination? What if you put off a task because it’s legitimately not the ideal time to start it? What’s the difference between procrastinating at work at taking needed breaks, or delaying a task because your mind and body aren’t, at this moment, properly primed to do the task?

Reading the academic work on procrastination has been surprisingly frustrating. Most of the papers I’ve found on the topic deal with students procrastinating schoolwork rather than knowledge workers procrastinating office tasks. Students are motivated for very different reasons than adults in the workplace. Additionally, with the exception of non-traditional upper education students, most students are definitionally young, which means they may not have had opportunities in life to develop skills that put procrastination in check.

What is Procrastination Anyhow?

There isn’t clear consensus on what procrastination is, exactly. One pair of researchers calls it a “pervasive self-regulatory failure” defined by “one’s voluntary delay of an intended course of action despite being worse off as a result of that delay” (Rozental & Carlbring, 2014). Is that true? Are we necessarily “worse off” as a result of procrastinating?

My work is often deadline-driven. I intentionally delay starting a project until I’m at a certain distance from the deadline, giving myself enough time to complete the project, but not starting so early that there’s no pressure at all to do it. That is a form of procrastination. However, the little bit of pressure found in a looming deadline motivates me to focus and work hard on the project. Theoretically, I’m better off starting earlier because I have more time and less stress. The assumption is that less stress is preferred. I have a hard time believing that’s true. A little bit of pressure does seem to spur us to greater productivity, as we’ve seen from studies on interruptions. People who were interrupted while doing office work in a controlled research setting were more productive and just as accurate. The key was interrupting them enough but not too much.

What Do We Want to Know About Procrastination?

What do we want to know about procrastination? Usually, people want to know how to control it. I would argue that procrastination is defined by the person doing it. No one outside yourself can say whether for sure you are procrastinating, because procrastination has to do with intent.

I’ve read a few studies about procrastination in the knowledge work offices instead of schools, and my frustrations with those is that they are sometimes searching for answers to questions that seem besides the point. For example, a study by Metin et al. (2016), which looked at 384 subjects, found that people procrastinate at work through “soldiering and cyberslacking.” That’s just telling us what they do when procrastinating, not how to curb the behavior.

Those same researchers worked on differentiating “counterproductive work behavior, general procrastination, and boredom.” Again, those don’t seem like the pertinent things people want to know about procrastination. I don’t care how procrastination is different from boredom, although I would be interested in knowing if boredom causes procrastination. That would be valuable information for managers in particular.

Other researchers were interested in that same idea. Wan et al. (2014) found that:

  • When people are bored at work, they procrastinate.
  • When people have a high emotional intelligence, they are less likely to procrastinate.
  • Stress didn’t have any significant relationship one way or the other. In other words, people don’t procrastinate more or less based on their level of stress.

How to Stop Procrastinating

What I’d like to see in procrastination research is some assessment on what people can do to identify procrastination and feel in control of it.

I alluded earlier to the fact that often what’s labeled as procrastination isn’t it at all. When we put off a task because we are not fully equipped to do it, that’s not necessarily procrastinating. For example, a friend of mine who is a clinical social worker told me she “procrastinates” making phone calls to clients at the end of the day and tries to do them first thing the next morning instead. When she explained the situation, however, she told me that the phone calls are emotionally taxing, and she’s low on energy at the end of the day. She knows she’s much more likely to be recovered from work and therefore have more internal resources to handle this emotional charge at the beginning of a day. That’s not procrastinating. That’s waiting until the right moment to do the right task.

We wouldn’t ask professional athletes to lift weights right before bedtime. That’s not the appropriate time for that task. The body is tired, and the mind is tired, which could also mean motivation and determination are lowered. It’s more effective to weight-train when the body and mind are at their optimal state for it. It’s easy to understand when talking about physical activities or physical resources, but the same seems to hold true for emotional and mental resources.

Before we can learn how to stop procrastinating, maybe we need a better understanding of what it means to appropriately schedule tasks.

References

Metin, B. U., Taris, T. W., & Peeters, M. C. W. (2016). Measuring procrastination at work and its associated workplace aspects, Personality and Individual Differences, June 2016. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2016.06.006

Rozental, A. & Carlbring, P. (2014). Understanding and Treating Procrastination: A Review of a Common Self-Regulatory Failure, Psychology(5): 1488-1502. Published online September 2014 in SciRes. http://www.scirp.org/journal/psych http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2014.513160

Wan, H. C., Downey, L. A., & Stough, C. (2014). Understanding non-work presenteeism: Relationships between emotional intelligence, boredom, procrastination and job stress. Personality and Individual Differences, 65: 86–90. DOI: 10.1016/j.paid.2014.01.018

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