The top 5 reasons you procrastinate at work — and how to stop

We asked leadership coaches, CEOs and other productivity experts for their best tips on how shake this bad habit.
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By Lexi Dwyer

You're reading this, but should you be doing something else? Procrastination, which the Cambridge dictionary defines as "the act of delaying something that must be done, often because it is unpleasant or boring," affects everyone at some point, but it's especially common in the workplace.

One study of 10,000 office workers showed that the average employee admitted they wasted 2.09 hours each day on activities not related to their job. And a survey of college students showed a whopping 80% to 95% procrastination rate.

That's a lot of time spent watching adorable cat videos.

Why do we procrastinate? (Besides, of course, getting tempted by cats and the babies who love them.) People put things off for many reasons, such as the unpleasantness associated with a task, poor time-management skills or not knowing how to start. We asked leadership coaches, CEOs and other productivity experts for their best tips on how to stop procrastinating.

The situation: You're afraid your current project will fail.

The solution: Give yourself a pep talk.

Sometimes simply pausing to acknowledge your emotions can improve your mindset. "Ask yourself, 'Is this procrastination driven by imposter syndrome or perfectionism? What kind of pressure am I putting on myself that I can't do this?'" said leadership coach Rachel B. Garrett. If you're prone to negative thinking, Garrett suggests having a positive response ready to go. "Realize you have thousands of thoughts a day and you get to choose which ones you believe," she said.

The situation: You're so overwhelmed, you don't know what to tackle first.

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The solution: Establish a nightly practice of putting to-do items on your calendar or in a task management app.

Claire Steichen of Clear Strategy Coaching incorporates her must-do's into her calendar. "This is powerful because it forces you to prioritize and makes you estimate how long a given task is actually going to take, and figure out if there are subtasks lurking within it. Having it on the calendar also makes it feel official and harder to ignore," she said.

Frank Buck, the author of "Get Organized: Time Management for School Leaders," uses the Remember the Milk app to color-code and organize his list by high, medium and low priority. "I reserve my calendar for that which is truly time-specific — does that call really need to happen at 9:15, or is any time this morning fine? Everything else goes in the app," he said.

As you add items, be specific. Don't just put "plan conference," but write things you can act on, such as "research hotels" or "write speaker list." Otherwise, you're likely to ignore it. "More than the tool you use, it's the way you craft the list," Buck said, adding, "When a task is crystal clear, we know exactly what to do, but when it's fuzzy, we tend to skip it and move to something easy."

Another bonus of being specific? It can often force you to divide a big task into small, manageable chunks, which many experts say is a good way to combat procrastination.

One study of 10,000 office workers showed that the average employee admitted they wasted 2.09 hours each day on activities not related to their job.Shutterstock

The situation: You find it hard to focus — whether you've suddenly remembered you need to call the dentist or you're feeling tempted by Instagram.

The solution: Minimize distractions and work in prearranged blocks of time.

"Make procrastination more challenging, so if there's a game you love on your phone, move the icon off your home screen," said Morgan Taylor, chief marketing officer of financial site LetMeBank. You can also turn off notifications and check email only at designated intervals. "It's easy to procrastinate by being reactive to your inbox. I check emails at 9 a.m., 12 p.m. and 4:30 p.m. only and allow myself 20 minutes maximum each time," said life coach Keara O'Connor-Allen. If you get lots of messages, O'Connor-Allen suggests setting an autoresponder asking people to call if it's urgent. Are internet rabbit holes your kryptonite? Try a tool like the StayFocusd browser extension or the SelfControl app to block tempting web sites.

For improving attention span, many experts swear by the Pomodoro Technique, which involves staying focused for 25 minutes (these blocks are called "Pomodoros") and then taking a five-minute break, and repeating this a few times before taking a longer break. You only need a basic timer, but Ciara Hautau, a digital marketing strategist, recommends the Chrome Pomodoro extension. "Besides just timing you, it also allows you to set intervals in which to accomplish things, and there are built-in progress reports that I find keep me motivated," said Hautau.

If distractions like that dental appointment pop into your head during a Pomodoro, keep a pen nearby so you can jot it down and handle it during a break, which Steichen says also boosts productivity. "Certain things, like scheduling doctors' visits, must be done during the workday, and giving yourself permission to do a five-minute personal task frees up mental space," she said.

The situation: Your co-workers keep tempting you down the path of procrastination.

The solution: Define your limits politely but firmly.

In today's open-plan offices, wearing headphones has become code for "don't bug me," but if your co-workers aren't getting the hint, you need new strategies. "Just-a-minute meetings are one of the biggest interruptions, so I put a sign up asking to not be disturbed and to email instead. People respect boundaries, but you have to communicate what they are," says Tonya Dalton, author of the "The Joy of Missing Out." Depending on your office culture, you can also try relocating to a spot away from the fray, like an open conference room, at least for part of the day.

The situation: You just don't want to do the task that's looming.

The solution: Reward yourself and reflect on the project's greater purpose.

Like puppies at obedience school, humans are motivated by treats. Abhi Lokesh, CEO and co-founder of Fracture, says he sometimes avoids what he calls "big, hairy projects," so he promises himself a reward. "We’ve all been there. You’ve got a thing that needs to get done but it's too intimidating or you may not like the end result, so you procrastinate by responding to email or doing expenses. When I’m faced with the choice to procrastinate or jump in, I incentivize myself with a treat of some kind — it’s the workday version of eating your veggies before dessert," he said.

When a task is truly dreaded, Garrett also suggests motivating yourself by thinking about its bigger purpose. "Many people would say they're doing something because their boss told them to, but if you're writing a report, you can ask yourself, 'What am I going to learn? Who will this serve?'" she said. "And think about who is going to see it, whether it's 10 or 1,000 people."