Bottom Line: Contrary to popular belief, the more work employees have to do, the less likely they are to procrastinate. In order to increase productivity, managers should remind employees of their overall workload, rather than castigate them for missed deadlines.
So an employee has missed a deadline—again. The natural inclination is to reduce his or her workload to ensure the allotted jobs get finished on time. After all, why give employees more tasks or remind them of those they need to finish if they’re already lagging behind?
According to a new study, this conventional line of thinking gets it all wrong. In fact, managers who emphasize “busyness” to procrastinating employees—by underscoring the tasks they still have to complete in the near future—can light a fire under them and reverse their slack in productivity. When employees sense they have a lot on their plate, the negative emotions they experience by falling short of one particular goal are offset by the demands of their overall workload, spurring them on to a greater effort.
About 5,000 productivity-related books were published in the United States between 2011 and 2013, and more than 3,700 downloadable to-do list apps are now available. Procrastination, on both a personal and a professional scale, has clearly become a central concern of U.S. businesses. Whether it’s an employee delaying the writing of a report, a manager postponing a meeting or a conference call, or an executive canceling a potentially vital business trip, procrastination can take many insidious forms. And yet, people often blame their missed deadlines on being too busy.
This study finds it’s just the opposite. The authors analyzed the results of almost 600,000 tasks from a software application designed to help manage people’s workloads, and conducted three other studies that examined workers’ negative emotions in light of missing a deadline because of procrastination. They found that when employees didn’t have many tasks to complete, their missing of one particular deadline had a significant negative reaction on them emotionally, causing them to disengage from the task and procrastinate on others.
But when employees had many jobs to complete, failing at one particular task took on less importance and inflicted less emotional harm because they had the feeling of being busy—whether they actually had more things to do or just were led to believe that they did.
When employees had many jobs to complete, failing at one particular task took on less importance.
This might be true for a couple of reasons, the authors posit. Feeling busy might cut down on the emotional effects of missing a deadline because employees can justify their procrastination by pointing to all the other work still left to do. People who perceive themselves as busy also might not dwell for long on the negative effects of skipping one assignment.
Although keeping employees busy could be the simplest solution to chronic procrastination, managers must also realize that some genuinely overworked people could become beleaguered and ultimately disengage. Bosses have to be able to balance “individuals’ feelings of being overloaded and their perceptions of what ‘being busy’ means,” the authors write. Managers can also make employees feel busier without necessarily giving them extra work, by emphasizing the number of tasks that need to be completed, or break up bigger projects into smaller sub-jobs to facilitate the feeling of accomplishment.
And sometimes, psychological measures can do the trick, the authors suggest. Managers should stress to their subordinates that they are busier than employees in other departments, prioritizing the topic of workload while also making a positive comparison. Because procrastination stems from the negative feeling associated with blowing a deadline, companies should endeavor to help their employees deal with the aftereffects and emphasize triumphs over failures.
Source: How Being Busy Overcomes Procrastination and Enhances Productivity, by Andrew T. Stephen (University of Pittsburgh), Keith Wilcox (Columbia Business School), Juliano Laran (University of Miami), and Peter Pal Zubcsek (University of Florida), Jan. 2014, Social Science Research Network Working Papers Series