Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Psychology of Procrastination: Increasing Productivity in the Workplace

Since the business world now never sleeps, utilizing time in the most productive way possible is an increasingly important problem to manage. Unfortunately, human development has not progressed as rapidly as business has expanded, and procrastination is an increasingly prominent dilemma in fast-paced jobs such as marketing, public relations, and advertising.

Psychologists are aware of this problem and recent progress has been made to discover why people procrastinate and what they can do to be more productive. Piers Steel (pictured below) is both a psychologist and Human Resources and Organizational Dynamics professor who integrated these fields in order to make insights about procrastination.

When viewed with the eye of a hiring manager, Steel’s research on the topic can be insightful. The study of organizational behavior generally shows that there are many benefits to having an older employee base, in that they are less likely to quit or be absent. Also, his studies have shown that there are basically equal benefits to having employees of either sex. According to writer Karen Ravin, Steel’s research demonstrates that older people are also less inclined to procrastinate and that women may be less prone to procrastination.

In addition to valuing older employees and possibly more women, a hiring manager worried about procrastination might want to start looking at certain personality traits. Instead of looking at “perfectionism and anxiety” as causes of procrastination, evidence shows that perfectionists are actually less likely to engage in such behavior because they are more anxious about performance. Now, hiring managers should be aware that “impulsiveness [is] the prime suspect" for procrastination.

Utilizing the mathematical equation Steel created for procrastination, a hiring manager might be able to more accurately measure a potential employee's productivity. This formula shows that “desirability of the task” is equal to “the person’s expectancy for succeeding” multiplied by “the value of completing the task,” both divided by its “availability” times “sensitivity to delay." Psychologists have developed numerous short tests that allow companies to test a future employee's skills and potential, and it is possible that this equation could be used to test procrastination.

Knowledge about procrastination is not only useful for managers- it can also help individual employees suffering from the habit. Steel gives his own advice with a clever analogy about easy Internet access via portable devices- "imagine trying to diet with a magic floating spoon of ice cream following you around." The best way to avoid tempting distractions like email is to be aware of any unnecessary overuse of such devices and to turn them off when they are not necessary.

A writer for Small Business Success, Beth Tabak, advises that people complete “unpleasant tasks” in the morning in order to feel a sense of accomplishment and reduce chances of putting it off as the day progresses. Furthermore, she suggests breaking up larger projects into smaller, more manageable tasks and setting aside a clear schedule for them in advance. Both Tabak and Lorraine Cohen, a business writer, encourage procrastinators to envision both positive outcomes (completing tasks successfully) and negative outcomes (putting them off). By making their positive vision detailed and exciting, procrastinators will be more likely to complete the task efficiently.

Psychological insights have consistently provided managers with new knowledge about how to relate to their employees. Initially, business owners utilized studies about motivation in the workplace to link productivity to wages and consistently give workers positive reinforcement. Perhaps future studies concerning procrastination will spark new business practices that become as basic as paying based on performance.