Procrastination at Work: It's Not About How Much Time We Spend On Facebook
Online retailer musicMagpie has just published research on how we procrastinate at work. The list of of familiar culprits that soak time from us during the day includes going on Facebook (16 minutes), daydreaming (20 minutes) and - I'm quoting verbatim here - going "to the toilet for a poo" which comes in at 9 minutes. Interestingly, on the last one, males report 13 minutes while females report 5. I'm not going to get into that.
The report includes a cost calculator for us to figure out how much we are paid to procrastinate and concludes that we have become a "procrastination nation".
Knowledge Workers Need Breaks
While it is in part tongue-in-cheek, the research seems to have been conducted with an assumption that we shouldn't be doing any of this stuff at all. This feels as if we haven't really moved on from the work of Frederick Taylor at the Bethlehem Steel Mill over a century ago. Taylor timed a number of labourers carrying pig-iron out to railroad cars and plotted some graphs suggesting how long they were able to do this before succumbing to exhaustion.
Most of us today are not labourers. We are knowledge workers and cognitive performance is not achieved by spending all day at our desks trying to focus on our screens. For an excellent summary of the science behind this - and how to use breaks to achieve cognitive recovery - read Dan Pink's excellent book "When". Breaks are a necessary part of our day so rather than viewing them as costly, we need to think of them as contributing to our performance.
Daydreaming can be a contributor to our creativity as it's when the domain network of our brain is let loose. Rather than thinking of this as a cost, it can be harnessed for cognitive performance. If we outline a document that we need to write, for example, then take a break doing something cognitively undemanding (going to the gym, taking a walk), our domain network will work away on the topic while we daydream. We can often return to our desk finding that our output flows much more readily.
The Real Issue With Phones and Social Media
To worry about the aggregate time we spend on digital distractions is to miss the point. This is not about time but about cognitive performance. The musicMagpie survey lists Instagram, Facebook and Twitter as major expressions of procrastination. All have been designed to appeal to the brain's reward system with an array of notifications and expressions of social approval such as "likes". It's not the time spent on these platforms but the "itch" to which we succumb when we look at them. When the brain's reward system is stimulated, the brain releases the neurochemical dopamine which, as well as deepening the habitual behaviour, can inhibit the performance of our pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of the brain we depend upon for deep thinking, self control and planning. All pretty important for knowledge workers.
The Real Issue With Procrastination
This is not about time management. This is about mind management. Procrastination happens because we do not want to tackle certain tasks in front of us. Sometimes this is because these tasks are unattractive - perhaps they are boring or effortful. Mostly, however, they are difficult, outside our comfort zone or carry the threat of negativity.
In my work with sales teams, for example, the three tasks that are procrastinated most frequently are prospecting, qualification and follow-up. Why? Because they are the tasks most likely to yield negative experiences.
The route to limiting procrastination is to build mental toughness. The good news is that there is a wealth of scientific evidence accompanied by an array of practical tools to help us cope better with negativity, step outside of our comfort zone and build our cognitive performance.
Ian Price is a performance psychologist and, through his consultancy Recludo Consulting, a specialist in building mental toughness in teams. He is also the author of personal development book Head Start.