For many folks, procrastination is a part of life, both at home and at work. The problem with the latter, however, is that too much procrastinating can put your job at risk, especially if you get into the habit of repeatedly missing deadlines or letting others down.

Of course, if you're a self-proclaimed procrastinator, you're not alone -- a good 20% of adults consider themselves chronic procrastinators. But all of that persistent stalling eventually comes at a cost -- to employers, that is. In fact, the cost of a single procrastinator at the office is estimated at nearly $10,400 per year. Ouch.

Man in suit launching a paper airplane at his desk


Procrastination can cost you, as an employee as well -- namely, in that if you're called out on it repeatedly, you're more likely to get passed over for promotions or, worse yet, get fired for not pulling your weight. But there is some good news for chronic procrastinators, and it's that there's an actual science behind why you tend to delay the tasks you know you need to accomplish. And once you understand how your mind is working against you, you can take steps to do better.

Why we procrastinate

Contrary to popular belief, procrastination isn't just a matter of laziness. According to research out of DePaul University, here are some of the key subconscious factors that typically lead to procrastination:

  • Fear of failure. Worrying about the outcome of a task can cause you to delay working on it.
  • Impulsiveness. We're all used to the idea of making impulse purchases while shopping, and the same applies to accomplishing tasks. You might go in with every intention of doing a certain project, but if something more enticing pops up, you can't help but get distracted by it.
  • Neuroticism. Harping on the unpleasantness of a given task can prevent you from actually getting it done.
  • Rebelliousness. Feeling forced into doing something you don't want to do can cause your brain to tell you to do the opposite.

Of course, the more of the above factors that apply to you, the more likely you are to procrastinate. So if that habit is hurting your career, it's time to focus on putting an end to it.

Overcoming the procrastination trap

If you're just as frustrated by your procrastination tendencies as your fellow colleagues and manager, there are several approaches you can take to train your brain into compliance. For one thing, try altering your perspective on looming projects that make you nervous. Rather than harp on what could go wrong with a given task, or the boredom of getting it done, try thinking positively. Focus on the things that might go right, and identify aspects of that task that are less daunting or mundane.

Another tactic you might employ is setting goals along the way rather than focusing on just the end result. When working on a task, we often don't think to mentally reward ourselves until we get the entire thing done. A better way to stay motivated, and thus reduce your likelihood of procrastinating, is to set a series of goals along the way. For example, if you need to complete a 15-slide presentation, think of some sort of reward for each set of three you complete. That reward might be a coffee break, an email check, or a brief stroll around the corner to clear your head.

Additionally, you'll lower your chances of putting things off if you work to better understand what's expected of you for each assignment you're given. When tasks are laden with uncertainty, our brains tend to send out warning signals to stay away. If you're given a project at work that seems challenging, sit down with your boss and ask for clarity. This will eliminate much of the self-doubt that prevents us from moving forward on things that need to get done.

Finally, if you have a fellow procrastinator at the office, buddy up with that person to keep each other focused. Encourage him or her to keep hammering away, and enforce some sort of accountability system where you're required to report to one another on your respective progress each day. Another approach? Make it interesting. If each of you has a task that needs to get done by the end of the week, decide that whoever finishes first gets treated to lunch by the other.

Though there is an actual science behind procrastination, at the end of the day, it's not an excuse for failing to get your work done. If you don't want your career to suffer, take steps to avoid procrastinating to the greatest degree possible. Otherwise, you could end up getting demoted or fired, and that's not a risk you want to take.