Procrastination is one of the main issues that presents home workers. When employees are left to their own devises, working away from the office environment, they are not in a position of having to constantly check in with colleagues’. Some people find this lone working environment hard going, and others get on fine.
It’s always helpful to explore the cause/s of procrastination and why an individual might be experiencing it. Drilling down into finding the root cause means that they will be more successful in finding the right strategy to do something about resolving the behaviour.
In a Thirve4Life talk occupational Psychologist Cheryl Issacs discusses the causes of procrastination. Cheryl argues, that in her experience the causes of procrastination came down to one of three causes: Cognitive fatigue (mental tiredness), overwhelm and boredom.
What is Procrastination?
Procrastination is the practise of delaying or postponing tasks until the very last second or after their due date. Procrastination, according to some researchers, is “a form of self-regulation failure characterised by the intentional delay of tasks despite potentially harmful consequences.”
Causes of procrastination
- Cognitive fatigue (mental tiredness)
Causes of Procrastination: Cognitive fatigue
Cognitive fatigue (as opposed to physical tiredness). This is related to what is known as your working memory. Each of us need our working memory working effectively, as this is the area of the brain responsible for executing tasks and managing your focus across multiple issues. It’s the area of the brain that is responsible for your concentration and attention. Many employees will be able to relate to the situation when they feel physically ok, but mentally exhausted. Cheryl added ‘when an individual is feeling like this, they are likely to procrastinate’.
Top Tip’s for dealing with Cognitive fatigue: Organise your day by playing to your strengths
Cheryl advises that by working with, rather than against, our natural limitations, we can find ways to help ourselves optimise our working day. She says it is helpful to be “super conscious of when and how you are doing certain activities.” It’s good to get employee’s “thinking about their energy levels throughout the day.” Cheryl noted that from her experience, most people are already aware of when they are at their best for certain work activities. Some people are early morning people and others find that their best time for tackling tasks is late morning or in the afternoon. However, what she has noticed from her work is that, although people often know what time of day they are at their best, they don’t tend to use the day to play to their strengths. If an employee finds that they are best at tackling complex creative work first thing in the morning, then it makes sense to dedicate this part of the working day to this type of work. Employees should try and allocate their most routine tasks, to the time of day when you have your lowest energy levels.
Cheryl’s advice is to reserve those best, most alert working hours in the day, to the work that requires your most creative input. By doing this, it will speed up your productivity as you will be utilising your working memory to its best advantage. By taking this approach you will find that you will be able to tackle those more difficult more complex or creative pieces of work more efficiently and reduce down the completion time.
Of course, your staff all have other issues they need to attend to, and life has a habit of getting in the way any good intentions to organise our days effectively. However, even encouraging employees to take this approach on say, two days per week, will be helpful, allowing key projects that demand high levels of concentration and input to progress with leaps and bounds.
Cause of Procrastination: Overwhelm
If an employee has a sense that they just don’t know where to begin with a project, with multiple factors to consider, leaving them with the feeling that they have a mountain to climb to get a task done, then they will have a tendency to procrastinate. This is a completely normal and common reaction to an ‘overwhelm situation’ however employees have a tendency to take it very personally and worry about the way they are feeling.
Top Tip’s for dealing with Overwhelm
There are many techniques that employees can use to dealing with feelings of overwhelm:
- For most employees, their first ‘go to’ at the very start of the working day is to log in and check their emails. From a psychological perspective Cheryl’s commented that this isn’t helpful for your working memory as it begins by sending immediate signal to your brain regarding multiple issues that will require the recipient’s input.
- This sends stress signals out, increasing the level of circulating cortisol (stress hormones) which hypes you up. Research has also shown that these increased levels of cortisol has a significant impact on your working memory. It reduces the effectiveness of your concentration and focus. This isn’t helpful, as focus is the very thing that you need when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. So stress leads to increasing the feelings of overwhelm.
- It is helpful to encourage employees to try and not make their email in box their first port of call. Cheryl recommends scheduling a 5 min slot right at the beginning of the day, calling it ‘Time to Think’, dedicated to taking a few minutes out for yourself, right at the start of the day, to benefit from some quiet thinking time, which will help you to calmly plan your day.
- Cheryl goes on to advise: Employees should be encouraged to start their ‘Time to Think’ time with something inspiring like ‘if today was a great day, what 3 things would I achieve?’ It’s a form of positive self-coaching. Three things aren’t overwhelming, it makes you focus on what things you can achieve, about the big-ticket items for example: Finish that proposal document, begin structuring out the strategy document for a new process, and round up the team for a meeting on the new client business coming in. However, it will also make you focus on what makes sense to prioritise, the best order of when to tackle these tasks. Of course, there isn’t a limitation on just three tasks. Many of us will achieve far greater than this depending on the level of complexity of each task. But focusing on three, gives a sense of achievability. Cheryl feels that just by developing this simple daily habit will help to diminish feelings of overwhelm.
- When you are juggling multiple projects Cheryl also highly recommends mind-mapping. There are multiple mind mapping software packages available to assist you with this. It’s very helpful with creatively drawing ideas together for any size of project and also good for making sense of your priorities when you are involved with multiple projects. Mind mapping can help you prioritise key focus areas with colour coding: for example red as urgent ‘to be done as soon as’ , green ‘by the end of the week, orange ‘month deadline’. Visual sensory prompts are really helpful to us and this is why mind mapping works in helping us organise our work and why it has become so popular. It’s a great practical technique to suggest to an employee when they feel overwhelmed with their workload and don’t know where to start.
- Cheryl explains that from her experience employees who feel overload tend to juggle things in their heads. Even writing to do lists, although this helps with identifying and clarifying the tasks at hand, it can still seem uninspiring and re-in force a message to your working memory that there is so much to do. Pulling out your priorities using mind map principles can work in a very powerful way to support employees with their working structure.
Cause of Procrastination: Boredom
Downright boredom with a work project is another reason for procrastination. We have to be honest and say that not all forms of work are inspiring and there may be times when employees just find their assigned tasks tedious and uninspiring to tackle leading to a tendency to procrastinate.
Top Tip for dealing with Boredom
Procrastination can of course be fuelled by good old-fashioned boredom where we find ourselves de-motivated to getting on with piece of work we find dull and uninspiring! There can’t be many of us who can say they haven’t experienced putting off getting started on/ or continuing with a work assignment because of boredom. Here, Cheryl offers advice on techniques that some of us might find useful in helping us get through these moments. Research has shown that our brains find it difficult to decipher the difference between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ excitement (an urgency that we have manufactured.) She went on to present a simple example in her own personal experience of how you can use this fact in practice as a tool to ‘get over’ procrastination that is fuelled by boredom. Cheryl explained that she really dislikes working on data and spreadsheets and much prefers creative work. To test the research which indicates our brains struggle with knowing the difference between ‘real’ and ‘fake’ excitement, she puts the research to the test. She set herself an achievable task of completing two spreadsheets in the time (55 mins) it took her washing machine to do a complete cycle, which would end with a customary sensory alarm in the form of a ‘bing!’ She reported that the fake excitement that she had caused by ‘racing’ the clock in this way motivated her to complete the dull task at hand in good time and backed up the psychology research. She emphasised the sensory input (the alarm sounding etc was important and the time allocated must be definitive to make this work.) This is, of course, just one example of the many ways we could employ the psychological technique of employing ‘fake excitement’ to get through those dull tasks.
Each employee needs to look at all the positive aspects of flexible working and take advantage of the opportunity strengths this form of working offers, be really mindful of the disadvantages, and try and develop processes that work to diminish these. In our previous articles, we’ve discussed issues associated with Health and Wellbeing , as well as Work Style issues in a Flexible Working Environment. In a series of articles on Flexible Working, we gave useful advice on how to deal with different challenges while working flexibly. Following advice from our articles, you would manage to make the best out of flexible working and improve your work-life balance and overall productivity.
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