You’re the boss. You’re focused. You’re busy.
You just assigned a big project to your top team. Due in two weeks. This could make or break the next fiscal year. You make it pretty darn clear how important this is for everyone.
You wait a couple days, then swing by to see how it’s going, see if you can help. They haven’t even started.
You check back end of the week. Nothing yet. What are they doing? Why aren’t they focused? Why aren’t they busy? You want to scream and pull out your hair… and theirs, too. Eventually, pretty much last minute, the project gets done. But why did they wait? Why was it last minute? What happened to your hair?
Welcome to the wonderful world of procrastination. It’s something you’ve done yourself and a trap you and everyone you know has fallen into since grade school. Putting off work for a long-term goal and you usually to do some short term thing of no real consequence.
Only now, procrastination is affecting your organization’s future. What is going on? What can you do?
There are several valid explanations for why we all – yes, you do it, too – procrastinate, but let’s focus on one aspect: Our lack of self-control.
We lack self-control because our unconscious decision-making mechanisms – the system of irrationality upon which behavioral science is based – prefers the tangible, emotionally satisfying rewards of doing something right now, in the present, to the immediate work and discomfort which might lead to – often greater – distant, vague, uncertain and disconnected rewards in the future. Whether it’s exercise, diet or saving for retirement, it feels good to do something now – stay in bed, eat some cake, put off the project – especially when the reward for the long-term action is weeks, months or years away. We don’t emotionally connect to the person in two weeks who hands in the report, but we do know what the person right now wants: To not do the report. Whatever pleasure or pain we might feel later – after a hard task is done – just isn’t as tangible nor as powerful a motivator as whatever pleasure or pain we might feel right now.
This lack of emotional connection with our future selves is why we put off unpleasant work for the emotional rewards of procrastination.
Eventually finishing the big report doesn’t feel nearly as good as the dopamine rush we get from one more retweet, or the comfort of hiding from our responsibilities or devouring some cookies. So if our team’s lack of self-control – their preference for the temptations of the present over the benefits of the future – is a driving force behind procrastination, what can we do to help them overcome?
You cannot change human nature, but by understanding human nature, you can create systems and environments use human nature to our own benefit and complete the project rather than having it be used against us.
That’s where behavioral science comes in, providing three basic ways to overcome self-control problems and stop procrastinating.
Make their future more real
We think of our future self as a separate person then our present self, so sacrficing now for the future can feel like doing something for a stranger. Behavioral research suggests we use simple tools to help us imagine our future self in more vivid, specific and relatable ways in order to connect to our future selves. The more we can make the future defined, vivid and detailed, the more relatable it becomes, and the more our team will care, connect and act in for the benefit of that future. Make the moment of completion as specific and tangible as possible. Describe the specific time and place when they’ll hand over the report, help them imagine how good they and their teammates will feel, the pride, the sense of completion and purpose, the praise, the relief, the free time and, if necessary, the drink or cookie they’ll get at the end. Make the moment of completing the project more real and it will become a more powerful motivating force.
Increase their present rewards
Since the benefits of the project we’re putting off won’t be felt for a long time, you need to increase immediate emotion rewards of the long-term project. We can do this through “reward substitution.” Rather than trying to convince your team to get going and connect to the future, you can give them less important, but far more immediate and tangible reasons to make a sacrifice today. How?
- Reward them for starting. When you check in after a day, tell them “great job!” even if all they’ve done is open a blank word document. Recognition is a powerful reward and a significant motivator of productivity. Recognize even the smallest first steps.
- Break the project down into smaller, easy to accomplish tasks. You can turn their completion bias – the tendency to check off quick easy tasks at the expense of longer term projects – on its head, providing them an adrenaline rush for each step of the project. This also engages the principle of endowed progress, whereby people are more likely to complete a task once they’ve made tangible progress.
- If necessary, help the team articulate specific steps to get the job done. When people make concrete plans, science shows they’re more likely to achieve their goals on time.
Have them commit to it
Making a concrete, tangible and specific commitment – a pre-commitment – to completing a task forces us to get it done. Publicly announcing a pre-commitment for each step – to teammates, colleagues outside the team or even social media networks –enlists the power of accountability and social pressure to counteract the emotional temptations of procrastination.
If there are specific sources of procrastination – social media, email, games – There are also plenty of apps and tools to help our peopel lock in … sometimes by literally locking certain websites and apps, and sometimes by triggering other emotions. For instance StickK.com automatically donates money to an “anti-charity” we hate if they don’t hit a goal. Maybe they can use their hatred of (insert rival political party or sports team here) to their advantage!
These are just a few of the ways we can help our people overcome the temptations of procrastination. There is, of course, the potential for adverse reaction when it comes to use these ideas to nudge them along. You don’t want to accuse them of lacking self control or overstate your own dedication – that will likely add to their stress, annoyance and reluctance to begin. If the project is something their all believe in – a big if, but an important one – you just want to strengthen their connection the better future when that project is complete. You want them to get going and you want them to get going now. A few behavioral insights can help you and them move towards a goal that will benefit everyone.
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