Helping procrastinators stay on track

One-on-one coaching and encouragement can convert chronic procrastination into productivity.
Helping procrastinators stay on track

It’s a familiar scenario. As a manager, you’ve tasked an employee with a large project and given them a generous allocation of time to get it done. Yet, while they appear to be busy, they are not making any progress as their deadline looms. When it comes down to the wire, they spring into action, find their focus, and get the job done, often just in the nick of time.

Twenty per cent of adult men and women are chronic procrastinators, according to Joseph Ferrari, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at DePaul University of Chicago and author of Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done.

“They delay at home, at work, in school, and in relationships. Procrastination is a way of life for them,” Ferrari said. He classifies procrastination as a “self-defeating behaviour that can harm your health, your finances, and your career”.

Chronic procrastinators can do damage in the workplace, too. For managers, who are responsible for keeping their teams productive and on task, supervising procrastinators is frustrating. If one in five employees is not doing what they are supposed to be doing, it can wreak havoc on planning, productivity, team performance, and anything else that depends on keeping to a schedule.

It’s not all doom and gloom. With an understanding attitude, patience, and perseverance, an effective manager can bring out a procrastinator’s best qualities and help them find ways to get their work done on time.

Gordon Teasdale, a human resources professional in the UK, and Renee Moelders, a career coach in the US, joined Ferrari to provide tips for managing chronic procrastinators.

Learn why employees procrastinate. Some people have trouble focusing. Some like the adrenaline rush that can come with waiting until the last minute and rushing to finish a project. Others may be in over their heads and are afraid to ask for help. If you sense an employee is struggling, meet with them to find out why. And tread lightly. “Don’t tell your employee you think they are procrastinating,” Moelders said. “Instead, ask them why their work is not getting done.” She suggested having them examine the reasons they are struggling and tell you what they think is happening. This type of discussion will help you find the root cause of their problem so you can help them overcome it.

Play down perfection. Accountants are often under pressure to be flawless and can be paralysed by fear, according to Moelders, a former public accounting firm administrator who is now a consultant with ConvergenceCoaching, based in Boston, Massachusetts. “Accountants are in the business of being correct and accurate,” she said. “Some work environments have a sink-or-swim attitude and a no-fail mentality.”

This pressure often causes people to fear making mistakes, so they stall out. Moelders advised managers to assure employees that it is prudent to be careful and cautious, but that it is not the end of the world if they make a mistake.

Stress the importance of meeting deadlines. Ferrari said he is not a fan of punishing employees but acknowledged that sometimes it is necessary to inform the procrastinators on your team of possible negative consequences for missed deadlines when their delays cause delays for everyone. He suggested that before it gets to that point, providing positive reinforcement to employees for staying on task may eliminate the need for difficult conversations. “If your employees meet or exceed their deadlines, offer them a reward they would appreciate, like an extra day off or a gift card for their favourite restaurant,” he said.

Get to know employees. Teasdale, owner and director of the HR Dept in Glasgow, recommended managers avoid using labels such as “procrastinator” to characterise employees. Instead, get to know them and understand them individually. One-size-fits-all management never works.

“Have one-on-one conversations with each employee, and ask them how they plan to achieve exceptional performance. Then check in on them regularly and monitor their progress,” he said.

Ensure employees’ skills and talent fit their jobs. Examine your expectations and your employees’ job descriptions to make sure their job is a good fit for their skillsets, and don’t zero in on their faults. “Look at their performance as a whole and recognise the contributions they make,” Teasdale said. At the same time, “give your team focus and help them apply their talents”.

Moelders recommended structuring jobs so employees can do more of the tasks they enjoy, based on their talent or personalities. “Strive to learn what gets employees fired up about work,” she said. “People are naturally motivated to do the things they love.”

Create diverse teams. “Don’t put procrastinators in a group with other procrastinators, or nothing will get done,” Ferrari said. He recommended structuring diverse teams, blending the go-getters with the employees who take a more roundabout approach to their projects. A mentorship programme involving your high-achievers will give procrastinators an opportunity to learn from them by picking up tips for better performance, gaining confidence, and developing better work habits.

Help procrastinating employees succeed. “Management is about understanding employees, coaching them, and setting them up for success,” Teasdale said. One-on-one interaction, checking in regularly to monitor their progress, and offering support will not only help a procrastinating employee improve his or her job performance, it will elevate the entire team. “Their success will spell success for your overall organisation,” he said. And that’s winning.

Teri Saylor is a freelance writer based in the US. To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Drew Adamek, an FM magazine senior editor, at


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