A provocative take on one of the slipperiest curses of professional life – procrastination – has emerged from the blogging platform Medium.
In a wide-ranging column entitled ‘Laziness does not exist – but unseen barriers do’,  Chicago-based social psychologist Devon Price challenges the traditional reading of procrastination as a symptom of sloth, and reframes it instead as a mental-health issue.
“People love to blame procrastinators for their behaviour,” Price writes. “Putting off work sure looks lazy, to an untrained eye. Even the people who are actively doing the procrastinating can mistake their behaviour for laziness. You’re supposed to be doing something, and you’re not doing it – that’s a moral failure right? That means you’re weak-willed, unmotivated and lazy, doesn’t it?”
On the contrary, Price notes: “For decades, psychological research has been able to explain procrastination as a functioning problem, not a consequence of laziness. When a person fails to begin a project that they care about, it’s typically due to either a) anxiety about their attempts not being ‘good enough’, or b) confusion about what the first steps of the task are. Not laziness. In fact, procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.”
Price argues: “When you’re paralysed with fear of failure, or you don’t even know how to begin a massive, complicated undertaking, it’s damn hard to get [things] done. It has nothing to do with desire, motivation, or moral upstandingness.
“Procastinators can will themselves to work for hours; they can sit in front of a blank word document, doing nothing else, and torture themselves; they can pile on the guilt again and again – none of it makes initiating the task any easier. In fact, their desire to get the thing done may worsen their stress and make starting the task harder.”
Price contends that procrastinators have “executive function challenges”, whereby “they struggle to divide a large responsibility into a series of discrete, specific and ordered tasks”. As such, it’s “really helpful to respond to a person’s ineffective behaviour with curiosity rather than judgment”.
“If an employee misses deadlines constantly,” Price argues, “something is making organisation and deadline-meeting difficult. Even if a person is actively choosing to self-sabotage, there’s a reason for it – some fear they’re working through, some need not being met, a lack of self-esteem being expressed. People do not choose to fail or disappoint.”
Does that view stack up? Amid the leadership challenges they present, should we be more sympathetic to procrastinators, uncover the roots of their slumps and then coach them through those issues? Or is it up to employees, under the banner of self-management and accountability, to overcome such hurdles themselves?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “It is certainly the case that we see the widespread practice of procrastination in people who we wouldn’t even remotely describe as lazy. So that does suggest something else is going on here. Many professionals will report that they need a deadline in order to deliver what is being asked of them. So people are attuned to the potential consequences of procrastination, and take them seriously – aware of the impact that delays could have.”
Cooper notes: “Price’s interesting, alternative take on this topic reminds me of the work of therapists Phil Stutz and Barry Michels. In 2012, they published a book called The Tools,  which I read about five years ago. One question they explore is why so many of us put things off, and they offer some thoughts on how to tackle procrastination. As they point out, ‘We avoid every task for the same reason: Taking action will cause us a certain amount of pain.’ As such, they advise, we should move forward into that pain – because staying in our comfort zone will cost us our most precious asset: time. 
“That seems to resonate very strongly with what Price is saying – that if many people are exhibiting a particular pattern of behaviour, then it is better to look at the behaviour itself and what may be causing it than to dwell on facile descriptions such as ‘lazy’. Then you can start to understand the inhibiting nature of procrastination from a new and different perspective, rather than going straight to being critical of the individual concerned. Such criticism could actually heighten the fear that someone is experiencing – and enforce within them a greater reluctance to act.”
She adds: “A leader with a sensitive approach to communication and conversation is well placed to help an inhibited worker to identify and understand the pain point(s) behind their procrastination and – with those steps taken – to move forward into action.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on time management
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