Procrastination is an epidemic. We often struggle to get started with tasks that are in some way scary and challenging – especially when there’s a lot a stake and we don’t have all the answers yet. In addition, many of us easily abandon what we’re doing as soon as we hit a minor block; we may jump to another task, check our mailbox, reach for a snack, and so on.
Procrastinating today is all too easy and enticing, as we have an abundance of choices to keep our ‘Monkey Mind’ entertained, often at the click of a mouse. The problem is that this habit is a huge productivity killer, and can also become exhausting and dispiriting. What we get in exchange is nothing more than some momentary half pleasure.
Of course, if we all felt fully confident and passionate about our work all the time, procrastination would never get the chance to creep in. The reality, however, is that knowledge work can be hard going. We need to solve unique problems and create new knowledge every day while dealing with complexity and ambiguity, and so we can’t really get too comfortable.
Let’s break the cycle
Productivity experts shower us with good ideas about how to overcome this deeply rooted human tendency, but then we tend to procrastinate about putting these ideas into action. (Unfortunately, we can’t rely on willpower alone to fight procrastination. Willpower is a limited resource – we might feel strong and disciplined at the start the day, but as the hours pass, we find it harder and harder to resist temptations.)
This is a vicious circle. However, there’s a way out, which Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage, calls the 20-Second Rule. The rule suggests that we are much more likely to choose a task that takes less than twenty seconds to start than one that takes longer. This presents an exciting opportunity: to replace pointless habits with more productive ones, all we need to do is to make good habits easy to start, and unproductive ones less so.
A well-designed workspace can be of great help
The physical work environment can play a significant role in this strategy, encouraging us as well as our team members to approach difficult tasks in productive ways. Here are a few suggestions for setting up a work environment that makes it easier for people to stay focused and tackle challenging tasks, and where taking an escape route ceases to be an attractive option.
1. Provide opportunities for your people to easily switch their body posture or work area
When we get stuck with a task and can’t immediately see a solution to a problem, we are inclined to change something about the way we work. We are looking to find new avenues for progress – any kind of progress – and so switching to another task can seem compelling.
While taking a break from a difficult problem can at times help, we are often impatient and drop what we’re doing way too quickly.
Changing our body posture instead, or moving to another spot to continue work, can be much more productive ways to respond, as these strategies allow us to stay on task and may also help us get unstuck. When we change the way we hold ourselves, or move to a new environment, our thinking shifts – we start to see things from different angles, with a fresh mind, and to look for solutions in new places.
Design suggestions: To support these productive habits, make sure that your workplace offers a range of different work settings that your team members can access and set up easily, at any time. Use different types of seating and desks throughout the office, allowing people to work in different postures. Provide sit-stand workstations that operate with the push of a button, and create chair-free spaces for standing meetings and workshops.
2. Leverage the power of ‘task association’
Getting into the habit of using different work settings for different types of work can help you focus better. For example, you could go to a quiet and secluded work area to do all your analytical work, a library-type space to do research, a casual lounge space to work on creative tasks, and a work booth to clear your mailbox. After a while you will lose the temptation to distract yourself with irrelevant activities, or to switch tasks impulsively. Doing the ‘wrong’ sort of work in a space dedicated to something else will not feel quite right.
Design suggestions: This is another benefit of having a diverse range of work areas in an office space – it offers people the opportunity to adopt this powerful work habit.
Technology also plays a huge role here, as different devices, pieces of software, and apps could be used for different types of work (and social) activities. For example, you may decide to use your laptop for report writing and your tablet for emails. Or you may use Chrome for business related searches and Firefox for social and fun stuff.
Technology solutions: Consider giving your team access to a range of different applications and devices – whether ‘bring your own’ or provided by your company. Having the opportunity to work differently on different tasks will not only make them more productive, but will also help them establish clearer boundaries between work and leisure.
3. Reduce sources of distraction, stress and overwhelm
Stress and overwhelm are among the greatest triggers of unproductive habits. When feeling stressed we tend to think more short-term and make less rational choices. And when we feel we are out of control, why would we bother starting what we need to do in the first place?
Distressing news in the workplace can come in many forms – a phone call from an upset client, a wrong delivery from a supplier, or a confrontation with a colleague. Most of us are overloaded with information, and given more responsibilities than we feel we can handle. Just because these issues are parts of everyday reality, we are not necessarily immune to the anxiety they create.
The physical work environment can also contribute to stress. When we feel uncomfortable, perhaps because of bad lighting or unpleasant temperatures, the tension in our body also affects our mind. Frequent distractions and interruptions only add to stress and overwhelm. And when myriad forces in the workplace pull us away from what we are supposed to be doing, our motivation to stay on task can quickly evaporate.
Design suggestions: It’s important that you make your workspace physically comfortable as well as strategically zoned, allowing people to move away from noise and distraction as needed.
Discuss with your team members what kinds of distractions and stresses might stop them from getting into the zone, and give them the opportunity to protect their headspace and confidence. Of course, no-one can escape ‘bad news’ forever, but having safe spaces to go to can really help people focus. Consider creating phone-free rooms, and you may also dedicate some areas for internet- or email-free work.
4. Create a break space that actually helps people recharge
Our mental energy and attention span are finite, so to keep our mind fresh throughout the day, we need to take regular breaks from work. When we try to push though mental exhaustion without taking the time to recharge, we inevitably slow down, make worse decisions, and may become irritable and impulsive.
However, not all activities that we enjoy doing in our break time are actually restorative. Many of us choose to surf the internet, chat with friends online or clear our personal mailbox when we have the chance. These activities can in fact be quite draining, as they tend to impose the same sorts of demands on us as our work does: dealing with distractions, taking in new information, making decisions, and juggling between tasks.
Design suggestions: Create break areas in your workplace that invite your people to take quality breaks. These spaces should be easy to access, comfortable, pleasant and safe, so that people feel compelled to leave their desks. A relaxing break space feels a long way away from the place where hard work happens. It shouldn’t be physically far, but it needs to have a different style and ambience, and the views and decor should divert people’s attention away from their duties.
Provide opportunities for your people to engage in restorative activities such as exercise, meditation, socialising, or reading a book. Watching a movie or playing games can also be good restorative activities after engaging in intellectual work, along with listening to music, or simply allowing the mind to wander.
Make sure that you and your people have access to the type of spaces and technology you need in order to master productive work habits and so put an end to procrastination. Discuss these productivity hacks with your team members, and perhaps develop your workspace together, as well as a clear plan for improving the way you work.
When the environment is geared towards effective work, people know how to use the space to its full potential, and they are willing to put some effort into adopting new work practices, their whole work experience can transform.
People feel more focused and energised, and find it easier to get into flow. They get more work done, and at a higher standard. This not only feeds the success of the company, but gives people a sense of achievement and progress, making them happier and more engaged. Nobody loses here, apart from the procrastination monster.