How to Overcome Procrastination, Even When You're Working From Home

Monday, March 16, 2020

By Justin Biel, trends editor at Grow Wire  
6-minute read

A woman looking unmotivated sitting over a desk and computer.

In short:

  • As most business leaders have seen firsthand, procrastination can wreak havoc in a work setting. 
  • Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a global leader in procrastination research, says it’s important for managers to understand that procrastination is rooted in an emotional fear of both failure and success. 
  • To encourage a change in procrastinators, managers can reward on-time delivery of work and pair procrastinators with doers.  



If you weren’t already aware, procrastination can have a severely negative impact in a business environment. And while millions of us are now working from home due to the effects of the new coronavirus, it's especially tough to stave off the desire to laze in your pjs all day.

 Dr. Joseph Ferrari is a social-personality psychologist, professor at DePaul University and the author of “Still Procrastinating.” He’s a global leader in the field of procrastination.


Wait -- what is procrastination, technically?

Procrastination is defined as the intentional yet irrational postponement of a course of action despite knowing that this delay has negative effects.

Through Ferrari’s research, he’s found that procrastination affects everyone to some degree, but only specific individuals -- about 20% of adults globally -- are habitual or chronic procrastinators.    

The cover of Dr. Ferrari's book, "Still Procrastinating." Ferrari's book, "Still Procrastinating," is intended to help people get over procrastination. 

"Everybody procrastinates, but not everybody is a procrastinator,” Ferrari told Grow Wire.

"Everybody procrastinates, but not everybody is a procrastinator.”    


Being a procrastinator or working with a team of procrastinators can be a significant hurdle to success in your company. For founders and other business leaders, it helps to understand procrastination -- myths around it, its causes and how to stop it -- to avoid pitfalls.  

Below, we’ll run through Ferrari’s most helpful insights on procrastination at work … without delay.


Why do people procrastinate?

Some argue that the advancement of technology in fields such as business, travel and communications has allowed people the potential to accomplish more tasks in less time, simultaneously giving them more opportunities to procrastinate. 

But Ferrari explained that technology is not the root cause of procrastination. Instead, it’s how you choose to use it.  

“The snooze button is not the problem," he said. "It's when you press it six or eight times to get more time."

"The snooze button is not the problem ... it's when you press it six or eight times to get more time."


Plus, you’re not that much busier than your tech-free predecessors: “What an insult to our ancestors who … had to work the fields, get the pump running and feed the animals every morning! Your life is not busier. Your life is simply different.”

According to Ferrari, procrastination is not a condition linked to external behavior. Instead, it’s more of a psychological effect.

Rather than being a time-management issue, procrastinating and the drive to do so are deeply rooted in emotions and social esteem, or our perception of how other people feel about us. 

According to Ferrari, procrastination has two primary causes, which encompass a large range of complex emotions. 


Fear of failure 

Fear of failure is a primary cause of procrastination. Procrastinators are socially conscious; they worry about what other people think of them.

Ferrari explained that socially conscious people want to be viewed as capable and successful. Procrastination is a method to help retain that positive self-image. A procrastinator would rather be viewed as someone who doesn't try as opposed to incapable.

To a procrastinator, "lacking of effort means you could do [a task]; you just didn't try," he said, "but lacking ability means no matter how much you try, you just can't cut it."

A procrastinator chooses inaction because the completion of tasks leads to vulnerability, social judgment and the possibility of failure. An example in a business setting is an entrepreneur choosing to delay a business proposal to secure a new client out of fear of being judged as inadequate and ultimately failing to secure the account.


Fear of success 

Another psychological reason for procrastination is fear of success. 

But why would someone delay something that if they think they’re going to do well? By completing a job and doing it well, there’s a strong chance you will be held to that standard moving forward, Ferrari said. Or, you may even be held to a higher standard the next time around.

“A procrastinator worries about having to continually succeed at a high level,” he added.

“A procrastinator worries about having to continually succeed at a high level."


For example, if a business delivers a product to a supplier on time or ahead of schedule, the receiving party will come to expect that every week. The supplier might even request a faster delivery the next time around.

Fear of having to repeat success or perform at a higher level in the future stops the office procrastinator from getting started. 


Procrastination research and your work life

Over the years, Ferrari has researched the role of procrastination in the workforce. His studies offer insights on:

Procrastination vs. perfectionism

In his research, Ferrari found perfectionism was a commonly cited excuse for procrastination. To understand this link, he sent graduate students from Baruch College into their workplaces to gather data on the difference between procrastination and perfectionism.

The study found that procrastinators and non-procrastinators are both perfectionistic, but for different motives. 

“For the non-procrastinator, perfectionism is motivated by a desire to get ahead,” Ferrari said. “For the procrastinator, perfectionism is motivated by a desire to get along.” 

“For the non-procrastinator, perfectionism is motivated by a desire to get ahead ... for the procrastinator, perfectionism is motivated by a desire to get along.” 


The point here, he explained, is that true perfectionists want to succeed at the job and deliver a good product. Procrastinators, however, are perfectionists in the realm of getting along with others. They’re more concerned with how they are perceived than with getting the job done.

 If you’re a procrastinator hiding under the cover of perfection, switch your intention from pleasing others to providing quality work.  

A photo of Dr. Joe FerrariFerrari is a social-psychologist who has conducted extensive research 
on procrastination in the workplace. 


Procrastinators vs. other procrastinators

In another study, students questioned workers about a hypothetical situation that involved working with a procrastinator, called “Mr. Nolan,” who was perpetually late on projects.

In test groups, Mr. Nolan was described in three different ways: as a procrastinator, a perfectionist and without any label. Two different employee sets answered the questions: self-described procrastinators and non-procrastinators.  

The goal of Ferrari’s study was to determine how procrastinators viewed one another in a work setting. 

As it turned out, “It didn’t matter whether Mr. Nolan was listed as a procrastinator, a perfectionist or had no label,” Ferrari said. “The procrastinators, more than the non-procrastinators … wanted to fire the employee and blamed them for causing problems at the company.” 

The study suggests that procrastinators tend to act more harshly against other procrastinators in the workplace. This makes sense, Ferrari explained, because people want to distance themselves from others with negative characteristics, especially if they share those characteristics. 

If you’re judging a procrastinator on your team harshly, check to see if you share similar work habits. If so, make a conscious decision to become more proactive in your work, rather than spending time and energy complaining about a team member.

Procrastination in startups vs. office jobs

If you’re a founder, good news: You’re less likely to be a procrastinator in this role than in a corporate one. 

Ferrari also gathered data about procrastination in self-employed desk workers versus corporate employees. In this sample, employees working for corporations cited higher levels of procrastination. Ferrari's analysis is that most self-employed workers’ salaries are directly dependent on work output, likely cutting their desire to put tasks off.  

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How to stop procrastinating within your team

When tasks aren’t completed on time -- or worse, not at all -- each business takes a hit in its own way. As a manager, it’s helpful to identify procrastination on your team and create systems that encourage more productive behavior. A few pro tips:


1. Look for patterns of procrastination.

Habitual procrastinators follow a pattern of failing to deliver tasks. For example, if a particular team member is nearly always late on projects and nearly always has a reason why something didn't get done, there's a good chance they're a chronic procrastinator. (Chronic procrastinators will also avoid tasks in their personal lives.)

If you’ve noticed this pattern in a member of your team, recall procrastination’s psychological roots and ask why they’re avoiding deadlines at work. 

“If you’re a manager, look for consistency across time and space,” Ferrari said. “If they're always late, try to understand what kind of fear they may have around the task."

“If [an employee] is always late, try to understand what kind of fear they may have around the task."




2. Reward team members based on when they complete tasks. 

Instead of punishing a procrastinator, think about how to reward them and their colleagues who emulate the behavior you want, Ferrari advised.  

The best way to encourage procrastinators to change behavior is to develop systems that reward people for getting things done on time or ahead of schedule. Instead of rewarding workers equally regardless of when they complete tasks, Ferrari said managers should “reward the early bird” even more than those who complete tasks at the deadline and even more than procrastinators who turn items in late.  

Smaller rewards could include a simple acknowledgment over email or in a meeting. Larger rewards might include promotions, bonuses, increases in salary or free-floating vacation days.  

 Learn more about rewards vs. punishment as a manager. 


3. Surround procrastinators with doers. 

Another way to change the behavior of the procrastinator is to “put the employee who might be a procrastinator [to work] alongside other people who get lots of work done,” Ferrari said.

“Put the employee who might be a procrastinator [to work] alongside other people who get lots of work done." 


Procrastinators can learn positive work habits from more task-oriented employees. Additionally, it will become more difficult for a procrastinator to slack off if they’re working beside an employee who is accustomed to completion and expects the procrastinator to carry his or her weight.    


The bottom line 

At certain times, procrastination affects us all. Chronic procrastination, however, is worth zapping amongst your team. Consider procrastination’s psychological roots, and strive to understand colleagues who show patterns of late completion. Then, build systems to change that behavior through rewards and your team’s more timely members.

Are some of your team members coming to mind? Quit procrastinating, and change your business for the better.