Everyone knows the fundamental reason why we procrastinate: We lack self-discipline. We simply don't want to do the work we need to complete when we need to address it. So we delay the inevitable. We grab a snack, check our e-mail, find something else to do.
We know procrastination will only create more stress for us, yet we succumb to it anyway. Why is it so hard to ignore procrastination's siren song?
Rory Vaden, co-founder of the training company Southwestern Consulting, studies the psychology of procrastination and the habits of successful, self-disciplined individuals. He believes that if people understood the true impact of procrastination and its psychological drivers, they might more easily overcome this counterproductive urge.
Vaden compares procrastination to buying on credit. Credit allows people to purchase more than they can realistically afford. Buying that pricey new gadget, flashy car or sprawling home on credit makes us feel good in the moment, he says, but long-term, we become prisoners of that debt.
Vaden maintains that procrastination works the same way. Putting off our work makes us feel good in the moment, but it catches up with us in the end. "Procrastination is nothing more than a creditor that charges us interest," he says. "Easy, short-term choices—whether to buy something we can't afford or put off work—lead to difficult, long-term consequences."
The True Cost of Procrastination
When Vaden was doing research for his book, Take the Stairs: 7 Steps to Achieving True Success (Perigee February 2012), he found a survey that asked 10,000 U.S. employees how much time they spent on non-work related activities while on the clock each day. The answer: an average of two hours every day. That's 25 percent of an eight-hour work day, Vaden notes.
Vaden estimates the cost of this wasted work time at $10,000 per employee per year. (His estimate is based on the average of American salary of $39,000 per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
"Procrastination is one of the most expensive invisible costs in business today," he says. "It doesn't show up on a P&L or in an individual's checkbook register. People need to realize that anything that wastes their time is a waste of their money."
Vaden's point is particularly salient for executives running companies and for individuals who are self-employed.
Why We Procrastinate Anyway
Vaden says people procrastinate because they're blind to its impact. People also procrastinate, he adds, out of fear, a sense of entitlement or a desire to achieve perfectionism.
To resist the temptation to procrastinate, Vaden says workers need a clear vision of how getting on top of their work will make their lives easier or advance their goals. "If I have a clear picture of how doing something that I don't want to do will get me to where I want to go, that vision will compel me and pull me through the muck," says Vaden. "Without that inspiring reason, it's hard for almost anybody to take action."
Having a clear vision is particularly helpful to individuals who procrastinate out of a sense of entitlement, because they feel they shouldn't have to do the work. If those people could realize how the work advances their goals, says Vaden, they could get on top of it. Managers who supervise employees with such an attitude should take note.
Vaden tells individuals who procrastinate out of fear to realize that it's ok to be scared, and he advises them to do their work scared. Sometimes just getting started helps people overcome any fear they may have about the work they need to do.
Perfectionists, meanwhile, sometimes fail to get started on their work because they want to have a perfect plan in place to ensure success, says Vaden. "They don't realize that while they're waiting for the perfect plan, the law of diminishing intent sets in. Intent is highest when it's created, then it fades over time. With each passing moment, the likelihood that we'll act on that intent decreases exponentially."
Thus, the anti-procrastination strategy Vaden prescribes for perfectionists: Focus on making progress rather than on perfection.
One final thought Vaden hopes will help people make the right choice when it comes to getting started vs. procrastinating: "The shortest guaranteed path to success comes from doing the things we know we should be doing but don't want to."
Meridith Levinson covers Careers, Security and Cloud Computing for CIO.com. Follow Meridith on Twitter @meridith. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline and on Facebook . Email Meridith at firstname.lastname@example.org.