Procrastination in high performers

and what that could mean for your organization

Disclaimer: This post is not about “X ways to overcome procrastination” or “procrastination is actually good for you.” I choose to not to write about either topics because a) many people wrote about that already (there’s not much that I can add), and b) it’s usually about the individual, and I’d like to focus more on the impact it has on the organization.

First, allow me to clarify what I mean by procrastination. Derek Thompson in “The Procrastination Doom Loop—and How to Break It” provided a great definition for procrastination so I will refer to that here:

Productive people sometimes confuse the difference between reasonable delay and true procrastination. The former can be useful (“I’ll respond to this email when I have more time to write it”). The latter is, by definition, self-defeating (“I should respond to this email right now, and I have time, and my fingers are on the keys, and the Internet connection is perfectly strong, and nobody is asking me to do anything else, but I just … don’t … feel like it.”).

Furthermore, in this context I will assume that the procrastinator is a high performer. For example: the person knows he/she is responsible for the work, knows how to prioritize and manage time well based on the priorities.

If a high performer is chronically procrastinating despite the fact that he/she is very capable and perfectly aware of his/her responsibilities, I suspect that there is a much larger, ominous problem underlying the behavior.

The lack of motivation.

There are many ways a person can lack motivation, and it may not be that person’s fault. The person might not believe in why the work they’re responsible for is actually worthwhile doing. The person might not believe in why the task or role is delegated to him/her. The person could be suffering from clinical depression. Or burnout. It could be a combination (if not a myriad) of things.

Some may think, “well… it doesn’t have to do with whether you’re motivated or not because what needs to get done needs to get done.” I find this view to be prevalent among both the people who tell procrastinating high performers to “just do it,” and the procrastinating high performers who drag their feet to get things done. But to me, it looks like sticking a band-aid on a swollen area that’s actually caused by a bone fracture.

Let me tell you a story about a procrastinating high performer, and a handful of things that contributed to the procrastinating behavior.

Meet Judy. Judy is entirely self-driven. External motivation doesn’t mean much to her because her motivation is fully intrinsic. She finds joy in large-scale problem solving — looking at a complex problem from different facets and exploring the design space for building solutions. That’s one of the reasons why she co-founded a small data analytics/design consulting startup.

Judy also happens to have some knowledge in managing finances and administration. Since she was involved in a startup (where one person typically needs to take on multiple roles because there’s not enough resources to hire people in each specialization), she ended up taking care of finance and administration in addition to domain-specific consulting work.

Judy has ADD (attention deficit disorder). During a typical work day, she spends around 80% of her time and effort trying to focus, and so she doesn’t actually spend that much time actually executing. But since she is extremely efficient, she can produce high-caliber deliverables very quickly compared to the average performer. Keeping track of things is not her forte; she can do it but it requires tremendous effort and focus compared to an average person to get it done. For example, a seemingly simple task such as counting is a daunting task for Judy (imagine being constantly interrupted by everything around you while you try to count). Switching tasks is not good for her either, because she needs to spend a lot of time and cognitive energy to re-focus. Judy is also a perfectionist who battles anxiety and depression. She needs to put in a lot of conscious effort to not feel ashamed of herself.

Keeping this in mind, let’s walk through what Judy experiences.

Since Judy’s motivation is solely driven from solving analytical problems, she is extremely productive in her consulting work but not as much in the finances and administration. She has difficulty taking and keeping track of records, making precise calculations, figuring out why the numbers don’t match up, keeping track of deadlines, and even being motivated enough to complete things before the deadline. As a result, the financial and administrative tasks start to fall behind, and self-shame starts to rapidly accumulate (remember: Judy is a perfectionist), and she is aware that it’s nearly impossible to do all the finances perfectly in addition to her consulting work. And the procrastination doom loop starts:

Oftentimes, deadline setting strategies are mentioned in pieces that talk about procrastination, but in Judy’s case, deadlines — whether they are self-imposed (“I need to start on this by next week.”) or external (“I will get penalized if my submission is late!”) — do not influence her motivation.

TLDR; Judy does not have a good fit with her role.

The problem does not stop there. It turns out that Judy was not in the right role, yet there was no one else who had a better fit for that role. Although Judy has problems keeping track of things, her teammates were even more disorganized than she was. There wasn’t the right mix of people running the organization: everyone in the organization was strong at one thing, and weak in the other. So the problem was actually systemic — it wasn’t only about Judy.

Yet, Judy was blamed for. Her inner flame was extinguished.

If the root cause is not properly addressed to the procrastinating high performer, it will do him/her more harm than good. Consequently, it will do the organization more harm than good (if you’re wondering why that’s consequential: it’s because the organization = the people). On the flip side, if the root cause is properly addressed — the person may shed light on major yet inconspicuous issues that have to do with the organization, not just the individual.

To properly address the root cause of procrastination and to get honest feedback, it is of utmost importance to make the person feel safe and relaxed (the person is probably on the verge of crumbling with anxiety). In doing so, there are a few things to take into consideration when soliciting feedback:

  1. To not make it (even remotely sound like) a punishment. The point is to get valuable information out of the person. It doesn’t make any sense to make them think that it’s not worth opening up and sharing their thoughts with you (because you look like a threat).
  2. To listen, with patience. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy for managers to do one-way reprimands without realizing that the other person has something to say (but is too fearful or beaten up). And it can take a lot of time — and courage — for a person to open up. You never know what they’re carrying.
  3. To re-frame the context as “a check-in” rather than a “meeting.” You wouldn’t want to rub work into their faces when they might be feeling constantly guilty and ashamed about not getting things done as early as they should be. Changing the environment: the location, time, and even the person soliciting the feedback (e.g. getting someone who is not the person’s direct boss who is a listener) may help make it less threatening.

Have any experiences with procrastination at the workplace? Have feedback solicitation suggestions? Thoughts are welcome.