I'm writing this article a few hours after it is due, mostly because I was in meetings, but also because it is about managing procrastinators in your department.
I'm not talking about your basic slow starters. We all procrastinate on occasion. But one-fourth of Americans are chronic procrastinators -- they routinely hurt their career, and even their health, by not starting work on time. In addition to doing their work at the last minute, these people lose sleep (from late nights finishing late work), raise their stress level, and put off exercising.
If one-fourth of Americans have this problem, chances are you manage some. They probably drive you crazy. Here's how to help them (and you) handle it a bit better.
The first thing you need to understand is that procrastination isn't laziness. It is a genetic response to fear. Whether you're creating that special report for the boss or encountering a jaguar in the wild, the pressure triggers the same fight-or-flight reflex. By not working on the project, you're running away from the fear of project failure, just as your fear of being attacked would cause you to run from a jaguar.
Procrastination built on fear often manifests itself as a need to be overly perfect, a desire not to start until all your ducks are in row, or a willingness to work on smaller, less important projects while letting the more important project wait until the last moment. Some people say they work best under pressure, so they let those deadlines sneak up on purpose. But, for the most part, people who purposely slip deadlines to work under pressure have been proven to perform much worse than those who don't.
The second thing you must understand is that the opposite of procrastination isn't getting stuff done. It's being impulsive. That is the fight in the fight-or-flight equation. Doing work without properly preparing for it and thinking "What the heck?" is the exact same problem as procrastination. It is manifesting itself in equally destructive behavior. In fact, it is the same behavior as the person who waits and waits until the last second to get something done. These people get so backed into a corner they come out fighting instead of fleeing.
With that in mind, managing procrastination is about managing fear and expectations. The less fear of failure there is, the better. Any manager who has tried to sit on a procrastinator, asking for the report every five minutes, knows what I'm talking about. That kind of constant attention leads to the person shutting down (flight) before bursting (fight) into a flurry of lousy activity.
What do you do instead?
Obviously, you can't just leave procrastinators alone and hope they won't be afraid of you. Their fears don't all come from you. Fear of failure comes from family upbringing (I wish there were space to go into all that), personal genetics, economic stress, company culture, and all sorts of other places. You can trigger someone's fear, but unless you are a barbarian, you are seldom the root cause of it. Most people with chronic procrastination problems have a deep-seated reason that involves a combination of genetics and family upbringing.
What you can do is help frame the fear. If the fear is failure, you can help create an atmosphere where lack of perfection is not considered failure. A learning culture, where failure is understood to be a moment to gain valuable insight, is very helpful.
Another way to help is to emphasize starting. The hardest part for a procrastinator is overcoming the inertia and fear of starting something. If you ask that person when something will be finished, you encompass all the fear of the entire project into one horrible question. If you ask when it will be started, you eliminate some of the load.
Similarly, breaking up big projects into smaller pieces with individual deadlines helps quite a lot. It is much less intimidating to turn in the graph for page three one day and the graph for page four the next than it is to turn in an entire report by a certain deadline.
Most importantly, though you can't always be a personal psychologist for your employees, if you understand that fear is the reason for their problem, simply doing what you can to address that fear will go a long way. Don't always try to eliminate all procrastination (or all fear, for that matter). The fight-or-flight instinct evolved as a way of keeping us alive. So a little procrastination can keep us from making real mistakes when we have real reasons to be afraid. In fact, I'll leave you with a quote furnished to me by my colleague, Susan Nunziata. She had the privilege of interviewing the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, who told her: "There's wisdom in procrastination."
There is. Just don't procrastinate too much.