Tips for working with procrastinators

We all procrastinate, but why? When I try to boil it down, procrastination is fear and avoidance. It inhibits action but pushes away the gnawing anxiety of starting, the tyranny of the empty page or the empty canvas. Why do we tend to procrastinate more on big things like term papers or design work but not on small things like doing the laundry?

Procrastination does not remove the stress and uncertainty of the thing we want to avoid. But, it does buy time. We try to avoid what needs doing in the hopes that our future self will be better equipped to do it or in the hope that our little problem will resolve itself. If we acted on what we needed to do, even if nowhere near completion, we would cease to procrastinate. Completion is not the opposite of procrastination, action is. Maybe the antidote to procrastination is simply any action toward doing the things we avoid doing.

Anyway, I got the idea for this entry as a result of a clever little trick Jody played on me. She had asked me to do something for her and expecting that I might wait until the last minute to get it done she told me the deadline was actually a day earlier than it really was. So in the event I did wait until the last day and changes had to be made we had some wiggle room. At first I was annoyed since I was so stressed about getting her task done then I realized that she was just being smart; that she knew me enough to work around me. Respect!

It got me thinking. How do you work with procrastinators? How do you work around people who you know get blocked by deadlines and who always wait until the last minute? Maybe the best approach is to enter their world rather than to try to force them to work the way you want?

In considering how to positively engineer the dynamics with procrastinators, I came up with a few tips on how to work with them.

  • Lie about deadlines. Most of the time you shouldn’t lie, but in this case it’s warranted and it works. If you need John to turn in his expense report or something on a particular day, tell him it’s due a day or two earlier than it actually is. When he starts getting close to this deadline, remind him and then let him freak out to get it done. Even if he misses the fake deadline, you can probably achieve the real deadline. Just don’t let him find out that the deadline is fake or he’ll adapt and act accordingly.
  • Call them out. Procrastinators thrive on ambiguity and the conflict avoidance of others. It allows them to keep procrastinating. They are masters of stimulating sympathy. If a procrastinator knows you won’t say anything, they will keep putting off whatever they promised. Sometimes it helps to say, “I know you’re putting this off, but it absolutely has to get done.” And, mean it.
  • Keep the heat on. Find your lever. The secret about bad procrastinators is that they are the most focused and the most inclined to finish when they are in crisis mode. They will finish if they must, but sometimes it takes the focus created by crisis. If there are real consequences and real deadlines, they will finish at all costs. The trick is to gear them up into that state where they WILL finish. Every person has their lever. The social procrastinator might be motivated by the potential for public shame; the competitive procrastinator might be motivated by a challenge; the friendly procrastinator might be motivated by guilt. As long as your goals are noble and beneficial, don’t be afraid to apply your lever to keep the pressure on.
  • Hold the line on deadlines. The word “deadline” originates from an actual boundary beyond which no man could pass and live. Most people who procrastinate treat deadlines as arbitrary concepts of relative importance. This comes from an attitude of living life in a very casual and spontaneous manner with a tendency to view things without certainty. I would argue that this is the natural way to live, in most cases. But, no matter what you do, hold firm on deadlines. If the procrastinator knows the deadline can be moved, they will behave as if it has already moved! Deadlines must be firm deadlines. Period! Once you give in, you will either need to impose a real deadline or the deadline will keep shifting forward through time. One of the little known secrets of project management, is that people take exactly as long as you give them to get something done. If a project can be completed in one week, but you give a deadline of 4 weeks, it will take 4 weeks.
  • Verify and incent progress. Check on the progress of what you want done. The procastinator will hate this, but they might have to admit they have not started, which shines a light on their procrastination and forces them to face something they’re actively trying to avoid. Ask to see what they have completed thus far and give them time to create something as they are likely to not have started at all.
  • Keep focused on the effort rather than the value of the result. Procrastination often stems from a pernicious feeling that whatever needs to be done must be perfect and without defect. Procrastinators often have such unrealistically high standards for themselves that it freaks them out when they need to do something they might be judged on. With most things in life, it is better to have something imperfect than nothing perfect. So when it’s all said and done, remove the pressure and soothe the procrastinator. Let them know that starting and creating an okay result is more important than making everything perfect.
  • Take advantage of mood. Many procrastinators have dynamic levels of productivity, which depend on how they feel or what time of day it is or what is going on in their lives. As essentially undisciplined folks, they have learned to work when they feel like working and to prepare for these productive periods by putting off everything else the rest of the time. When you see several emails or other signs of activity from your resident procrastinator, jump in and ask them to fulfill a very specific request or specific piece of a project you need them to work on. Chances are if they’re in their “catching up” cycle they’ll be able to get it done.

One comment

  1. Thank you for your tips. My business partner is wonderful but an amazing procrastinator and I needed some insight.