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Does it seem like your employee's procrastination problem is in repeats? It's time to find a solution or say your goodbyes.
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4 min read

This story appears in the September 2002 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

What do you do when an em-ployee always does tomorrow what could be done today? Dan Gould learned the hard way with one early project manager: "He'd take his laptop home, saying he'd work," says Gould, 34, "but never get anything done."

Gould is founder and CEO of Synergy Investment, a Westborough, Massachusetts-based company that retrofits energy-efficient lighting. He ran out of energy dealing with the employee and eventually let him go. "It was frustrating," he says.

One thing is for sure, nagging isn't the answer. "Putting pressure on procrastinators only backfires," says Neil Fiore, president of Self-Leadership Seminars in Berkeley, , and author of The Now Habit: A Strategic Plan for Overcoming While Enjoying Guilt-Free Play (Putnam-Tarcher). "You need a strategic plan."

Just Do It

We all procrastinate sometimes, and for different reasons. That procrastinator in the corner cubicle may be a poor time manager. But procrastination can also be a mind game some employees play to literally psych themselves out until an assignment looks too intimidating. Then there are employees who feel burned out or frustrated and do busy work-cleaning their desks, surfing the Web and so on-for immediate gratification and a feeling of competency.

No matter the cause, procrastination is a big productivity drain that you have to deal with. Habitual procrastinators "have a planning disability," says Saul E. Rosenberg, a psychotherapist and executive coach in Corte , California. "Entrepreneurs have to do a lot of organizing, structuring and planning [for them], much more than they would do with an ordinary employee."

So how do you get a procrastinator moving? The first step is to focus on starting. After all, a procrastinator can't finish what he or she hasn't started yet.

"A lot of type-A types tend to focus on the end point, and that tends to overwhelm people," says Fiore, who has worked with hundreds of procrastinators, from graduate students struggling to finish dissertations to people facing five years in back taxes. "Ask, 'How can I help you get started?' "

Fiore suggests finding a start time based on the employee's schedule that offers 30 uninterrupted minutes to build momentum. Ask the employee to send you an e-mail afterward, just to let you know he or she got the ball rolling.

Prodding procrastinators, however, doesn't stop with getting them started. Today, Synergy's employees meet with managers in weekly one-on-one sessions where they offer progress updates and list five things they want to achieve in the coming week. "You can coach at this point," he says. "Everyone can use a carrot or a stick, or just some advice." In fact, coaching is critical to getting the procrastinator to the finish line, because they desperately need a sense of direction, a series of short, easily attainable deadlines and lots of feedback.

Don't underestimate the power of input. "[Their] own way is going to give [them] a lot more initiative," Fiore says. "Give them as many choices as you can."

Dive Right In

Help as much as you can with the performance issues, Rosenberg says, but don't play psychologist. If the procrastinator's habits don't improve in a month or two, it's time to see a work performance specialist or let the person go.

Gould says if he finds himself in another procrastination situation, he'll deal with it "lightning fast." "In retrospect I should have set some firm goals and then gotten rid of him," he says. "You can't motivate the unmotivated." That attitude has energized Synergy's sales to more than $5 million in 2001.

Before you lower the hatchet, however, take a look at your own management style. What you see as an employee procrastination problem could be your own failure to set realistic goals and deadlines. Are you overburdening employees with too many "urgent priority" projects? Not giving them enough time to finish, given everything else they have to do? If so, cut some slack and figure out a new system for assigning work.

Finally, it never hurts to learn which tasks employees enjoy and which ones make them procrastinate. You'll learn who your go-to people are for certain tasks, and this will help employees see assignments as a reward rather than a punishment. With some strategic thinking, you'll find that your employees will be doing today what could have been put off until tomorrow.


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