Slackers, coasters, procrastinators, loafers. It is likely we all have had them as collaborators on our projects. Hopefully, we have never been one of them. Yes, some procrastinators can be well-meaning, intending to participate, but can never manage the time to do what is required. Maybe they are perfectionists and will not begin a project for fear of not doing it perfectly.
Some call procrastination at work “workplace cyberloafing,” and it is labeled as “counterproductive work behavior that can harm organizations.” However, a new study, Cyberloafing as a Coping Mechanism: Dealing with Workplace Boredom, from researchers at University of South Florida and other universities suggests that cyberloafing “can serve a potentially positive function in that it can help employees cope with workplace boredom.”
The underlying problem and the real reason people procrastinate, the study shows, is boredom and underutilization of an employee’s talents.
Whether the procrastination is an underuse of talent, a personality trait, inadequate time management or misunderstanding of the goals, these tools can help solve the procrastination problem taxing any team dynamics and move forward the team project.
1. Be clear on tasks with to-do lists for each team member.
Break down responsibilities day by day and week by week and copy everyone on the team. The feeling of accomplishment will override the need to procrastinate eventually. And letting down other team members may produce action. “When you use a daily to-do list and circumstances hijack your day, it’s demoralizing to keep moving items over to your next day’s list. By writing all the actions you need to take for a particular project on a list just for that project, you can work through your tasks as you have time. Project-specific to-do lists also help you use scraps of time effectively. For example, if you have a spare five to 10 minutes, and there is a five-to-10-minute job on your list, you can quickly see that option. Save your daily to-do list for things that truly need to be done that day,” Alice Boyes writes in Fast Company.
Defining team roles and making sure each participant understands his or her own power to contribute can help alleviate some of the stress and help each other deal with difficult colleagues. As Gloria Feldt, co-founder and president of Take The Lead, suggests in her leadership training programs and 9 Leadership Power Tools, understanding your own sense of power will drive everyone to success.
2. Make checklists visible.
When I managed team dynamics at a nonprofit, we had a large whiteboard in the main room with large events and projects listed and the person responsible for the tasks on the timeline. Listed were breakdowns by due dates and each team member would check off when completed. Having your project visible with all the checks rendered complete offers a sense of accomplishment and accountability to the team. When a team member has the boxes unchecked, that is also visible to everyone. There are tons of to-do list apps for you to personally use, but you'll want these to be up on a board somewhere for everyone to see.
In his 2009 book, The Checklist Manifesto: How To Get Things Right, author Dr. Atul Gawande says complexity has gotten in the way of success, and that simply having checklists to break large projects down to simple performances increases success rates, and in his cases, decreases death rates. “The modern world has given us stupendous know-how. Yet avoidable failures continue to plague us in health care, government, the law, the financial industry — in almost every realm of organized activity. And the reason is simple: the volume and complexity of knowledge today has exceeded our ability as individuals to properly deliver it to people — consistently, correctly, safely,” Gawande notes. Checklists address the problem.
3. Pad the deadline with a buffer zone.
When my children were small, I set all the clocks in the house ahead 45 minutes. This was how long it took me to get everyone ready and out the door. I would use the clock to my advantage and say, we have to hurry or we will be late. I still set my clock ahead in the car. Automated time settings on phones, smart watches and laptops make that fudging obsolete, but you can set an early deadline ahead of the real one so that you can have a buffer zone. And set aside enough workplace time for the project, allotted just for the project. This will be carved-out sacred space and specific time slots that can be hard to avoid.
"A deadline is frequently set because someone needs what you are working on by a certain time. If you're facing one, try to set aside blocks of time to work on the assigned task. If possible, avoid taking phone calls and don’t check your emails or texts during this block of time. This will help you to complete your assignment on time, while preventing the overwork that comes with not meeting a deadline. It has been shown that reducing the pain of working on a project, by breaking it down into manageable pieces, reduces procrastination,” writes Norbert Rug in Rockport Journal. “Now, if a deadline is good, is an aggressive deadline better? Yes, according to Cyril Parkinson’s dictum: ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ If there's more time to complete a project, people will use it, and not always wisely.”
4. Have blocks of time set aside where no other work can interfere.
Perhaps you want to set up a co-working space and time for the project, where other email distraction or meetings are scheduled. Have lunch brought in. Make this a no-excuses zone where calls go to voicemail and interruptions are minimized or eliminated. Be diligent about how you time yourself in this dedicated zone. “Timing yourself may seem ridiculous, but don't knock it until you try it! Research shows that we do well working in spurts with regular, scheduled breaks,” writes Nicole Arzt in Traning Zone. “If you really struggle with procrastination, it might be best to start with a manageable amount of time, such as 10 minutes, with a five-minute break. The better you get at committing to your process, the easier it will be to find your sweet spot of work/rest time. For me, 40 minutes of work with 15 minutes of break helps me feel recharged."
5. Offer a space for each team member to evaluate the other.
As I did in my university courses, this can take the form of final evaluations, or it can also be assessments along the way in the form of a formal written weekly check-in. Psychology and Saint Vincent DePaul Professor Joseph Ferrari’s 2010 book, Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting it Done, reveals that “procrastinators are often critical of each other." While feedback does not have to be negative, one procrastinator may offer solutions to another and in the meantime, find a way to change her own behavior.
6. Make sure the goal is visible and build in rewards.
Is this a project that may result in new funding? Focus on what can happen with that new revenue source. Is this a presentation that may result in rewards such as a new client, increased visibility and other recognition? Focus on that. Make sure the outcome is not just the completion of the project, but that there is a bigger end goal, even if it is enhacing reputation. Talk about the possibilities from that.
“However tempting it may be to have multiple goals, choose one. It’s your priority. The goal needs to be achievable and usually it’s the most important item or group of items on your backlog. It might be getting a character walking in a new prototype, or adding another environment tileset to a pixel art game, or capturing footage for a trailer. The important thing is that it's clear and doable,” writes Shane Neville in Gamasutra.
Have a celebration planned for completion of the project. It can be as simple as a few pizzas delivered to the office. It can be a promise of a bonus, raise or new title. It can be praise on social media or the company website. It can be a letter of recommendation or praise of the team to the highest up in the organization. But make sure the effort gets acknowledged publicly.
Get it done.
It may be easier said than actually done.
Procrastination expert Ferrari says that “despite what many people claim, procrastination is not a time management problem; it is a chronic, maladaptive personality tendency.” He adds, “Everyone procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.”
Find out why you procrastinate and fix it.
Michele Weldon is an author, journalist, editorial director at Take The Lead and senior leader with The OpEd Project. Her most recent book is Escape Points.