Reducing procrastination at work
Psychotherapist, and coaching psychologist, Michael Neenan defines procrastination as ‘putting off until tomorrow what our better judgement tells us ought (preferably) to be done now...’. This is contrasted with a planned delay: ‘legitimate reasons for postponing action …’ (ibid.).
Clinical and occupational research suggest there are various psychological themes which underpin procrastination:
Avoidance and anxiety (of various kinds) - anxiety about the situation or the task resulting in avoidant behaviour.
Restoring the balance of autonomy - refusing to be told what to do, put off doing it and so asserting control over when or how it is done.
Pre-disposition to last minute activity - often seemingly chaotic. A preference for urgency and immediacy.
Interpersonal ploy - putting things off for long enough that someone else might do it
Over-commitment - already overcommitted and feeling overwhelmed.
These are connected also to major research themes relevant to workplace coaching.
Firstly, procrastination may be a negative consequence of dysfunctional 'core beliefs'. Core beliefs about oneself such as 'I am a failure' or 'I must be strong at all times', may also reflect the 'life-script' developed at a very early age through various childhood experiences. Negative automatic thoughts such as 'this is going to be impossible' or 'I can't do this' can happen involuntarily when facing a challenge, feeling under pressure or feeling stressed in some way .
Secondly, diary studies suggest that procrastination is influenced by work characteristics and situational factors, such as excessive performance expectations, workload, and time pressure.
So, procrastination, like many work-related behavioural patterns, occurs through a complex interplay of individual, systemic, and situational factors. Each case needs to be understood in its entirety for a coach, or consultant, to intervene in the right ways.
A third research theme is the role of active (positive) and passive (negative) forms of procrastination, and links to adaptive and maladaptive perfectionism, which I have discussed in previous posts   . Passive procrastinators tend to put things off in the traditional sense. People who engage in passive procrastination can be paralyzed by the indecision to act and ultimately fail to complete tasks on time.
In contrast, active procrastinators find ways to use procrastination to their advantage. They may prefer to work under pressure, so by deliberately choosing to procrastinate, they make best use of their own style of working. What they may not always consider carefully enough is the impact this may have on colleagues or clients. So even though it may be functional to use one's own preferences, in a work context, procrastinators can create challenges for others.
A fourth theme emphasizes the importance of “self-regulatory resources” and sleep . Chronic sleep deprivation and the concomitant physical and mental exhaustion gets in the way of our ability to self-regulate at work. Sleep deprivation tends to stop us from working on things that we do not enjoy much or may just feel like putting off, which are nevertheless important.
Finally, a fifth theme, is the dynamic relationship of goal focus with the active and passive forms of procrastination . Being clear on personal goals and focusing on them more, can help people overcome the ill effects of passive procrastination.
Research suggests rational emotive therapy, and closely related cognitive behavioural therapy in clinical settings are also a robust framework which can be adapted for helping someone who is delaying a piece of important work, or does this habitually . Rational coaching, which focuses almost entirely on challenging and changing the thought processes that reinforce procrastination at work, is also a relevant approach .
A cognitive behavioural coaching approach that I have used in the last few years makes use of the ABCDE model. This starts by exploring an ‘Activating Event’, which also requires some surfacing of awareness of the client’s context. The approach then seeks to understand ‘Beliefs’ which are influencing the coachee’s response to their situation. This leads to sharing the ‘Consequences’ of this response. Once these consequences have been understood and acknowledged, I can then engage in a sensitive and collaborative ‘Disputation’ of beliefs which may be holding back the coachee. This then allows the coaching conversation to focus on building an Effective New Approach to handling the situation .
In a work context, the ABCDE model reduces performance interfering thoughts (‘PITs’) and increases performance enhancing thoughts (‘PETs’). The key is to help the coachee get started when they feel stuck, to keep going, and to keep reinforcing the benefits of breaking a deadlock. I would encourage an individual who wishes to procrastinate less, to create, pursue, and maintain realistic, meaningful outcome goals, and then put in place precise action plans to achieve their goals.
This example is deliberately very generic and draws very broadly on my experience as an educator, consultant, and coach in a range of organisations.
Use of the ABCDE model
The client is a leader tasked with coordinating a revised policy, or strategy and then to execute a project which seeks to implement that strategy. This is in an area which is both operationally urgent and strategically important to their organisation.
This project is a major responsibility and very high profile. They have never been given a project this big and important before – and they do not feel ready for it.
My observation would be that their role is to coordinate, not to be the sole content owner. The coachee shares feelings of very high anxiety and it appears that slightly perfectionistic tendencies may be getting in their way.
Belief (Performance Interfering Thoughts - ‘PITs’)
‘The scope of this is unbelievably huge’
‘My whole career hangs on this’
‘I’m alone – I can’t really rely on anyone else because this is my accountability’
‘This is a ‘hospital pass’ - I've been completed screwed over by my colleagues because the task is impossible!
The coachee only sees the weight of the task, complexity, and possibly overstates the personal implications. Clearly the coachee is taking on undue pressure, and, in principle, they should be reassured by the fact that a number of people will be involved in the project.
‘Delaying starting my own work on this is making things worse’
‘I’m having sleepless nights’
‘My partner is getting bored of me complaining’
‘My colleagues are noticing that I’m avoiding this work and asking me what's wrong’
The coachee shows signs of avoidance. Stress levels appear unhealthy, which could impact the coachee’s health. Their relationships are also being affected. It is importance for them to see how their own beliefs are affecting them and their stakeholders.
Disputing (Performance Enhancing Thoughts - ‘PETs’)
‘The worst thing that can happen once I get started is that the first version of the proposal gets knocked back – but at least I will have a draft and feedback on what needs to change for it to be accepted’.
‘I can do this. I have done difficult things before.’
‘It’s time for me to go to the next level in my career and I will never be completely ‘ready’ – I just need to try it’
The coachee needs to be encouraged to reframe their own internal language – to be more optimistic and to ask themselves ‘what’s the worst thing that can happen?’. Here, I would be seeking evidence to challenge catastrophic or negative thinking so that the coachee’s thinking is anchored more in facts and realities of their situation, rather than their own assumptions. They need to be encouraged to think about the support networks and resources they can pull into the project quickly.
Effective New Approach/Evaluating
‘I will form a project team with my boss’s support and help. With the team’s input I can create a project plan for this new policy proposal which will require input and feedback from several stakeholders.’
This stage requires a coach to guide the coachee to plan and then initiate a first step. It’s helpful to give the coachee some personal coping mechanisms to manage personal anxiety, such as relaxation and breathing exercises. It's helpful to work with the coachee to focus on short term, medium-, and long-term outcome goals, then plan the necessary actions.
The simplicity, speed, and potential for immediate impact of cognitive behavioural coaching makes it an attractive approach for workplace problems which require rapid solutions. I am also trying here to demystify coaching by drawing on the very simple and user-friendly tools offered by a cognitive behavioural approach.
‘Psychodynamic’ approaches, which delve more deeply into childhood experiences, and subconscious processes, often over extended periods of time, can also be very powerful and fruitful. However, in the wrong hands, and without the right attention to visible, behavioural outcomes, psychodynamic approaches can also be unproductive, or even unethical. Where psychodynamic approaches are concerned, a little knowledge could well be a dangerous thing. For those without extensive psychological training, or a clinical background, a cognitive behavioural approach offers relatively simple to learn, and evidence-based techniques.
Clearly, there are myriad approaches which can be used, such as a 'gestalt' approach, which would be more directly experiential, and is anchored in here-and-now exploration. Also popular, is ‘ontological’ coaching, which seeks to transform a client’s ‘way of being’. However, when working with time pressure and the need for quick practical results, that characterizes some workplace settings, I have found that a cognitive behavioural approach to coaching can be the most pragmatic.
The downside of this approach is that the kind of shift we see in the individual might be limited to addressing the immediate challenge they have brought to the coaching conversation, which may not always lead to deeper, long-term shifts.
Where clients – whether individual leaders or leadership teams - present with much deeper and more personal, relational or existential issues, or more wide-ranging sets of leadership or performance challenges, other methods become more relevant. With the benefit of time and an extended series of coaching sessions, more experiential methods, and especially a gestalt approach also come into play in my own practice.
Frankly, I try to resist becoming too attached to just one coaching or facilitation style. What matters to me is the application of evidence-based practice in a flexible, agile (‘multi-modal’) and integrative way, to be helpful to the person or group in front of me.
Loyalty to philosophical or methodological 'schools' seems irrelevant once I'm in front of an individual, or a group, trying to help them clarify their priorities and move forward.
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