3 Expert Strategies for Procrastinating Less at Work

Find out how to procrastinate less at work with these techniques from a founding father of project management

Project Management and Procrastination

Procrastination is a challenge we bring upon ourselves. Though we know we’re doing it — and truly know we should know better — we often find plenty of ways to distract ourselves from the work that’s piling up. And it only winds up making our lives more difficult.

“Nobody forces people to procrastinate; they force themselves to procrastinate,” said Dr. Harold Kerzner, Ph.D., one of the founding fathers of project management.

Dr. Kerzner calls procrastination the deadliest sin of project management. In fact, he has identified it as a key culprit behind the failure of many projects. “Some people believe that if they don’t do the work, the work will disappear,” he said. “It’s self-inflicted pain.”

Dr. Kerzner has been studying this productivity demon for decades. He first became interested in project management while serving in the U.S. Air Force in the 1960s. At the time, the military was developing a method to more efficiently complete large, complex projects worth millions of dollars. Dr. Kerzner was intrigued and decided to be a part of the field that was reinventing these processes.

So when the military began prodding businesses to adopt project management principles, Dr. Kerzner was there to help. He spent decades consulting to companies on how to implement project management best practices and teaching project management at Baldwin-Wallace University in Ohio. He has also published more than 50 college textbooks on project management.

As senior executive director for project management at the International Institute for Learning, Dr. Kerzner travels the world speaking and consulting. His most recent book, Project Management 2.0, came out this year.

Over the course of his career, Dr. Kerzner identified many sources of procrastination, as well as a few tips and tricks for overcoming the frustrating habit.

“One of the reasons why I found people procrastinating is that they don’t know how to cope with pressure and stress,” he said. “Other people can put you under pressure, but stress is self-inflicted.” And it becomes a vicious cycle when the procrastination compounds the stress.

So don’t put off discovering Dr. Kerzner’s methods for another minute! Here are three techniques that you can try out at work today.

1) Don’t answer the door

Everybody has a time of day when all cylinders are firing and they feel the most energized and productive. That’s not the time to schedule a bunch of meetings if you can help it. Instead, try a technique that Dr. Kerzner learned from one of his own project managers years ago to use this fruitful time to your advantage.

The project manager would arrive at work at 6:15 a.m., then lock himself in his office for the first half of the day, when he was most prolific. He wouldn’t answer knocks on the door or phone calls — this was before the dawn of texting and email — until lunchtime. After that, he would be available to meet with his staff for the rest of the day. So why did the project manager structure his mornings like this?

“He told me he needed solid blocks of time each day so that people wouldn’t rob him of his precious time,” Dr. Kerzner recalled. “When you work on projects that have six, seven, and eight zeroes and no decimal point, you can’t afford to have people rob you of your precious time. Suddenly I became a morning person.”

Carve out solitude during your prime time so you can focus. Then save your meetings or lighter and less urgent work for points in the day when you’re not as energetic. That way you still can accomplish something during that time, without struggling to focus on items that require heavy brain power.

2) Write the hardest chapter first

Many people prefer to tick all the easy tasks off of their to-do list. But that means that you’ll be left with a stack of your most difficult tasks — a recipe for procrastination. Instead, Dr. Kerzner suggested trying a different tactic.

As the author of numerous books on project management, Kerzner credited his productivity with figuring out the most difficult chapter to write. That becomes the chapter he tackles first. When it’s done, he moves on to the next-hardest chapter, and so on, until he completes the book.

“The result is that the book gets easier and easier to write once you get into it,” said Dr. Kerzner. “I talk to people who spend three to four years writing a book. That’s because they start on page one.”

Completing the hardest parts first also gives you a sense of accomplishment that carries through to the next to-do.

3) Hang out at happy hour

Interestingly, one way employers can help curb procrastination is to encourage co-workers to spend time together socially. Whether it’s bringing in lunch or planning an occasional happy hour, companies can actually boost productivity through these interactions. They build a stronger community and closer relationships among people who work together. But how does that help battle procrastination?

“At organizations where workers socialize with each other outside of work, they are more productive — with less procrastinating — than at organizations where they only talk to each other at work,” said Dr. Kerzner, citing the work of MIT Professor Alex Pentland.

“When people procrastinate, they often could care less about the impact of their procrastination on other people. But when you socialize with people away from work, and they are your friends, now you have second thoughts about procrastination and how it impacts other people.”

Procrastination keeps you from doing your best work. It drives down your own productivity and that of the people around you. But by tapping into your inner resources and trying out these three techniques, you, too, can make the most of your own precious time.