Many of us had high hopes at the beginning of quarantine. We’d read more books, tackle long-overdue home improvement projects, and make use of our now-free commuting time to get ahead at work.
But it hasn’t necessarily worked out that way. “People are realizing no, this isn’t the abundance of time and space we originally believed,” says Sarah Greenberg, a licensed psychotherapist and leadership coach. “Most of us are holding more than we’ve ever had before.”
Even small tasks, which seemed easily completed before, are feeling harder and harder to check off. Suddenly, minor, clerical tasks can feel like climbing a mountain, which, Greenberg explains, is related to a lack of “intrinsic motivation around them.”
So what hope is there for fighting procrastination as social distancing drags on? It comes down to figuring out why we procrastinate and how this common behavior fits into the current crisis environment.
1. ADDITIONAL STRESS
Unsurprisingly, many of us are experiencing a high degree of stress right now, whether due to anxiety about the state of the world, social isolation, unemployment, additional caregiving responsibilities, and/or dealing with illness and loss.
These stressors can weigh on our minds and affect how well we balance each of these competitors to our attention. Preoccupation with what to expect next can also make you feel unsettled and distracted. “Stressors are heightened during the pandemic,” says Kaite Yang, an assistant professor of psychology at Stockton University. “[One] reason is uncertainty over employment and resulting financial hardship.”
For those fortunate enough to remain on the job or resume their once-furloughed positions, anxiety can still seep in and make productivity challenging. Oftentimes, this feeling of anxiety is a result of overestimating how many tasks we have the bandwidth to complete.
For a lot of people, anxiety feeds perfectionism. So, when it’s time to finally face a compounding pile of responsibilities, we avoid the slightest chance of messing up and delivering anything short of our best. “Procrastination can be a way to make that more concise choice, like, ‘No, I just really don’t have the energy for that right now,’” says Greenberg.
Finally, we’re dealing with many new distractions.”One reason we are procrastinating more is the number and variety of distractions in a home work environment—like homecare, childcare, other adults at home, [or using] improvised work spaces,” says Yang.
2. ABSENCE OF BUFFER BEHAVIORS
At the top of the workweek, many remote workers rouse themselves from a relatively banal weekend, make breakfast, and sit down at their kitchen table or home office to start work. All things considered, their commute to work is drastically cut down.
But while that may save time and hassle, a traditional commute can help with productivity, as it allows you to mentally prepare for work at the beginning of the day and then disengage from work in the evening.
Without these buffer periods, Greenberg explains, workers may struggle to find motivation and achieve work-life balance. “It’s easy to see how something as simple as a commute and location change could make a difference. In the office, we have all these things that set us up to do things properly, even if we don’t feel like it. When we’re away from the office and isolated, it can become a lot harder to ‘rev that engine.’”
In a virtual work setting, these signals, which represent bounds around a workday, are missing, and may promote sliding into procrastination or, on the other end, overworking and burning out. “The things we get in the workplace—some around habits and some around the environment—they counteract procrastination,” says Greenberg. “For the workday now, it’s really hard to have these on and off ramps.”
3. SHIFTING PRIORITIES
This abrupt shift to remote work did not occur in a vacuum. Amid the pandemic and national reckoning around race and police brutality, many people are reconsidering what they care about.
Anxiety is on the rise, making the demands of work feel secondary to the issues weighing on people’s minds. Workers may face decreased motivation when they consider what issues they want to prioritize now, especially in the absence of a clear path forward. “It’s difficult, come Monday morning, to have these tasks that don’t feel necessarily tied to the deeper purposes [and] themes in your life,” says Greenberg.
4. FEWER SOCIAL INTERACTIONS
If you’re no longer going into an office, you may be experiencing diminished social connection. Yang points out that social relationships, especially at work, can be motivating. People run ideas by each other, or get inspired to tackle a new project. “Receiving feedback on your work—whether from colleagues or the work task itself—contributes to satisfaction and motivation,” she says. “We know that workplace social relationships impact feelings of belonging, identification, and satisfaction at work.”
Virtual interactions may feel stilted and less emotionally responsive than in-person interactions once were, leading people to look elsewhere in their lives to find value.
According to the American Psychology Association’s magazine, Monitor on Psychology, burnout consists of a combination of feelings, including exhaustion, cynicism, and detachment. Workers “switch to doing the bare minimum instead of doing their very best.”
Moreover, employees who feel burnt out are more likely to switch employers and more often to take sick days. “Burnout impacts both our energy—making it hard to do much of anything—and our self-regulation. Procrastination can be a sign or outcome of burnout,” says Greenberg. This means, when we’re heading into a burnout zone, our reaction may be to avoid assignments we know are important.
Procrastination crops up when humans resist confronting what they perceive are bad endings. It becomes a strategy for humans to emotionally cope with a perceived threat.
Fortunately, if you’re a manager, you can help your employees fight burn out. First, connect with them by proactively checking in. Adam Goodman, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Leadership, says burnout can be remedied through a healthy discussion about life and work. In order to prevent burnout, it comes down to showing compassion and interest in your employees, no matter how small: “An easy starting place is having informal quick ‘connects’ on a weekly basis. They’re as simple as a quick hallway conversation, email, IM, or phone call.”
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