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Do You Work With A Procrastinator?

I walked into a business the other day and noticed its "star customers" wall of honor, complete with smiling photos of said customers. Then I looked up to see that the sign said "Our Star Customers Of 2005-06." 2005-06? It's safe to say that someone in the office has been procrastinating.

It got me thinking about procrastination in the workplace. Well, that and the fact that I still have to buy one more Christmas present to send to the West Coast. Why has it taken me so long to get around to this task? Wishful thinking? A lack of organization? Various distractions? All of the above. The point is, we all procrastinate. It's just that the things we procrastinate on tend to differ.

But what if you have to work alongside a procrastinator? I'm not talking about the occasional procrastinator who always drags his or her feet on a dreaded task, which is pretty much all of us. No, I'm talking about the never-seems-to-get-around-to-it-by-deadline employee. Of course, in this terrible economy companies can drop these postponing employees faster than Kobe Bryant is about to lose half of his fortune, but sometimes they inexplicably stick around the office for years and years and years. On that note, sometimes the procrastinator is the boss. Fun times, people, fun times.

By the way, people who visit this blog semi-regularly may have noticed that I've been doing a "do you work with a ____" series over the last several months. One day, I realized I was tripping over ten years' worth of boxed-up magazines to get to the desk in my home office and, well, why was I doing that? We live in the digital age now and most of these stories are online. So in a desperate attempt to avoid another sprained ankle, I went though each magazine (hey, I'm currently underemployed, I have the time), clipped out my by-lined articles and recycled all but 10 to 15 of the magazines that I want to save for posterity for whatever reason. It was like recycling a small forest. Anyway, one of the articles was a management column about -- you guessed it -- managing the procrastinating employee that I wrote nearly a decade ago when Americans had real jobs and could use their homes as piggie banks. Home values will always go up, forever and ever! Ah, memories.

But the column still has some relevant, practical points after all these years. Plus, it's the Monday before Christmas and no one is really working very hard -- including me -- so let's run with it, shall we?

So how to deal with procrastinators at work? Hmmm. First, it's important to understand why this employee is procrastinating. Not that you have to turn into an amateur psychologist or anything, but it's not a bad idea to stop and ponder. Does the employee have poor time management skills? Does he or she get psyched out by certain assignments, dislikes certain tasks, or generally looks burned out? Is this person a passive-aggressive personality? This employee could be displaying a combination of all of the above or at the very least, has crummy time management skills.

It seems counter-intuitive, but don't nag the procrastinator because it'll only make this employee dig in his or her heels. Also, stop focusing on the project's end point (er, deadline) because it'll make him or her focus on the seemingly wide expanse between Point A (having the task dropped on lap) and Point B (the deadline). One expert I interviewed said to use what I'll call a "ready, set, go" approach where you pick a starting time and have the employee start the project for 30 minutes and drop you a note saying that all systems are go. Not a terrible idea, because getting started is often the hardest part, right? In fact, not starting is the very essence of procrastination. That's how you end up touting your star customers of 2005-06 in 2011.

Now for the best part (to those populating the non-management ranks): Maybe the manager is the problem by setting too many arbitrary deadlines at once, asking for status updates constantly, and slapping every single thing with an "urgent" label. But if everything is always "urgent," then nothing is urgent anymore. Employees will start to see the boss as the boy (or girl) who cried wolf. They will bank on the boss forgetting the fifth "urgent" deadline of the day. In other words, they'll think some of (most of?) the manager's deadlines aren't all that serious. So if you have a few chronic procrastinators on staff, make sure to do a 360 review that includes your own management style. Are you making the procrastination problem worse by muddying the managerial waters? Just a suggestion.

Now off to work you go! I'm off to the online store to take care of something I should have done weeks ago. Well, it's the thought that counts, right?

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