One in five of us admit to being prone to procrastination, a behaviour that can take a heavy toll on finances, relationships and personal wellbeing. How can we stop dilly-dallying, and does technology help?

The average office worker is only productive for two hours, 43 seconds a day, revealed a recent survey of almost 2,000 professionals across the UK.

Procrastination is “the voluntary, and intentional delay of an important and necessary task, despite knowing that you will be worse off for the delay,” says Dr Fuschia Sirois, an academic who researches its effects at the University of Sheffield. She estimates that around 20% of adults are chronic procrastinators.

“Modern life can be more difficult because there are so many other things you could be distracted by,” says Sirois. “There are many more demands.”

Texting, checking our phones and scrolling through Instagram are just some of the things that distract us in the workplace.

The average UK office worker is only productive for two hours, 43 seconds a day, shows a study from money-saving site, VoucherCloud. Checking social media and reading news websites are the most popular forms of distraction at work, according to the survey of 1,989 office workers across the UK.

Common misconceptions

This is not to say that procrastination is a recent phenomenon. In a Greek poem written around 700BC, Hesiod advises his brother, “Do not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn.” Mr Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch compiles notes rather than finishing his magnum opus, The Key to All Mythologies.

Psychologists Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen dismantle the misconception that procrastination is due “to laziness and lack of discipline”, in their book, Procrastination: Why You Do It, and What To Do About It Now.

Fear of failure, a need to rebel against authority, and self-esteem issues are just a few of many potential causes.

A matter of life and death

Sirois found that procrastinators are more prone to stress, headaches, colds, muscle pains and insomnia. Her research even suggests a correlation between chronic procrastination and heart disease.

Sirois’ team divided 980 volunteers into those who were healthy and those with hypertension and/or cardiosvascular disease. The volunteers completed Lay’s Procrastination Scale, a 20-question survey that measures procrastination as a personality trait, which showed a link between those who procrastinate habitually and those diagnosed with heart conditions.

Sirois says that it can often mask deeper mental health issues and is not simply due to ineffective time management. “The heart of procrastination is poor emotion regulation,” she says. “It’s a form of avoidance.”

Many procrastinators are perfectionists. “It allows people to take comfort in believing that their ability is greater than their performance indicates,” argue Burka and Yuen. “As long as you procrastinate, you never have to confront the real limits of your ability, whatever those limits are.”

Procrastinators in the workplace need to feel supported, says Sirois. Reinforce the strengths they bring to the task and get them to find something positive in the process. “Don’t try and guilt them or make them feel bad,” she says.

Think ahead to get ahead

“It’s about communication,” says Clare Evans, productivity coach and the author of Time Management for Dummies. Managers need to work out why a team member is procrastinating before tackling it. “Is it because this person is feeling overwhelmed, is there a lack of skill, or do they simply not know what they’re meant to be doing?”

“One of my clients used to spend five hours a day answering emails,” says Evans. Wasting time adds up. Do the maths; that’s one day a week – 52 days a year – spent emailing. “Switch off alerts and check your email two to three times a day at the most,” advises Evans.

To tackle a headache-inducing task, Evans recommends starting with an end goal and working out what steps are needed to get there. She says, “It’s about not being able to see the wood for the trees.” She recommends reducing the task to smaller components to ensure the task isn’t a project in itself, establishing a routine for regular responsibilities and spending an appropriate amount of time on each task.

Josh BowyerCEO at Zint Technology

Spending hours in the office doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being productive, says Josh Bowyer, CEO at Zint Technology, a business information platform based at Salisbury House in Finsbury Circus, which helps sales teams find customers. Zint has come up with a unique solution to procrastination: Bowyer bans communication channels like LinkedIn, Twitter and even phone calls and emails for set periods throughout the working day.

Bowyer says, “We have isolated our key hours for each channel, which means we switch off all others until that key period is over. For example, if a prospect asks for an email on a call, which may take five minutes to write, during that time 10 calls could have been made which convert at a much higher [success] ratio, and so that email is put together and sent after the key calling time. This allows us to eliminate distractions and maximise the output from each block of time.”

This practice of “time boxing” allows the team at Zint to set amounts of time to specific tasks without distraction from things like an overflowing inbox.

However, it’s not quite as simple as battling a bulging inbox. We’re battling our brains. Dopamine, a feel-good hormone, is released when we achieve something, be that emailing, checking Twitter or finally filing your tax return. Unfortunately, our brains are hardwired to go for the easiest hit at the expense of longer-term gratification.

Make work satisfying

What if we could get instant gratification and still achieve our long-term goals? Immerse, based at The Record Hall in Farringdon, offers virtual-reality training technology to clients like Shell, GE Health and DHL.

“Desk-based learning can be a massive drag,” says chief marketing officer, James Watson. “People procrastinate because a lot of the time that training doesn’t have an obvious or meaningful benefit.” To combat this, Immerse uses virtual-reality training scenarios to help businesses increase staff retention and engagement, as well as inform real-life operations.

VR training from Immerse

For example, DHL trains its staff to load cargo efficiently using Immerse technology, which saves space in the cargo bay and time loading packages. “It’s a bit like Tetris,” says Watson. “We’ve put a score against it and there’s a global leader board.”

“Every time you do something you get feedback,” he adds. “It’s instant gratification.”

Games aside, even using a straightforward time-management app can provide a sense of achievement. We asked Workspace customer Andy Baddeley to share his experience of using time-management apps to organise his team.

#MondayMotivation

When it comes to productivity and endurance, Andy Baddeley, Head of Operations at sports media and PR agency Fusion Media, also based at The Record Hall in Farringdon, knows a thing or two. He’s a two-time 1500m Olympian and Parkrun world record holder. However, powering through to-do lists requires a different set of skills. For this, Baddeley relies on Monday, an app that allows teams to manage workloads and track projects together. “It’s simple,” he says, “A team member writes the details of a task into the appropriate client or project area, assigns a lead person responsible for that task, and enters a deadline.”

It also means you can prioritise your own day, he says. “You can search the system for tasks assigned to you, so that you can see all of your pending tasks (and associated deadlines) across all projects in one go.” This, combined with the time-tracker app Toggl, allows team members to record how long they’re devoting to specific clients.

It’s not only digital apps that motivate Fusion Media’s sporty bunch. “We’re pretty competitive,” admits Baddeley. “Our team-building days and Christmas parties have seen us go mountain biking, tackle the Crystal Maze and play mini golf.” Compared to competing against a two-time Olympian on the mini-golf course, tackling a to-do list no longer seems quite so overwhelming.

Find out if you’re a procrastinator at tinyurl.com/Take-the-procrastination-test. Whether you need to reflect more deeply and ask your manager for help, download a time-management app or simply put down your phone during working hours, there is a solution to help you work better and feel less guilty about procrastinating.

Read ‘Don't delay, download!’ for our top procrastination-busting app recommendations and ace your next project.  

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