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Why You Should Hire a Procrastinator

What's important for managers to know about deadline-driven employees.

Most employers don’t ask if job applicants procrastinate or not. Besides, given the stigma around being a procrastinator, people who tend to race the clock generally hide the way they get things done. Whether we want to assess the potential of a job applicant or the performance a long-term employee, the criteria for success—however we define it—comes down to two factors: High achievers never miss deadlines and their work reflects their best efforts. All of the high achievers I’ve studied met these criteria, whether or not they procrastinate in the process of getting things done.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the primary source of motivation to get things done, whether you procrastinate or you do not, involves emotions. Although it’s reasonable to assume we are motivated only by our thoughts (cognitions) when it comes to tackling either a major project or a mundane chore, we actually cannot think ourselves into being motivated to do something without the help of emotion. The designation of emotions as positive or negative indicates how they motivate us by the way they make us feel. We are built to desire good feelings, and the pleasurable feelings that accompany positive emotions certainly compel us to get things done. Yet we are also equipped with negative emotions that motivate us to do something in order to avoid or relieve ourselves from feeling their effects. The pursuit of excellence, for example, is often driven by shame-anxiety: motivation derived from an individual’s attempt to evade anticipated shame, which we experience cognitively as a fear of failure.[i], [ii]

The different timing of procrastinators and non-procrastinators to complete tasks has to do with when their emotions are activated and what activates them. Procrastinators who consistently complete tasks on time, even if it’s at the last moment, are motivated by emotions that are activated when a deadline is imminent. They are deadline driven. Consider Ryan, for example, a marketing consultant who claims he procrastinates “like a psycho.” In one situation the deadline for a project he had to complete was in a week. He had taken on the project two months before, and since that time it had been marinating in his mind while he gradually developed a strategy to tackle it.

Unlike those of us who are task-driven non-procrastinators, Ryan was not motivated to directly attend to the project because his emotions are activated by a looming deadline, rather than by a task itself. Ryan does not have the interest, energy, or drive to begin an important project unless there is significant tension in terms of time which results in the activation of various emotions that create anxiety. As tension builds, he becomes mobilized and feels compelled to do something. He notices many things that need to be done, aside from the project at hand. During such times he feels guilty and shameful, blaming himself for being diverted away from his project by all of the “distracting” tasks that seem to demand attention: He organizes his desk, spotlessly cleans his house, spends more time exercising, and he thoroughly researches wilderness biking expeditions. Meanwhile, images of the various pieces of the project begin to appear in his consciousness along with the intensification of his anxiety.

Many deadline-driven procrastinators do not realize that this period of “distraction” is actually due to the activation of emotion as a deadline nears. The energy provided by their emotions motivates them to do something, but often the attention is directed to other tasks they have yet to complete or activities that interest them. As a result, many procrastinators make use of the emotional energy that emerges when a deadline is close. Even leaving the house for an appointment can represent a deadline to get some things done that have been pending.

When the deadline is upon him, Ryan experiences highly uncomfortable shame-anxiety and thus he begins to fear that he will fail to complete the project. He then wonders if he should request an extension—a typical thought he has at such times—although he is well aware such a request would embarrass him. Further, any relief he would experience from an extension would be short-lived since, eventually, he would be in the same situation. His anxiety also leads him to question his career choice and consider alternate paths that he actually isn’t interested in pursuing.

Eventually, the relief he seeks from the intensity of his emotions thrusts him into gear. At that point, nothing can interfere with his focus on the project. Although the stress of completing a task is concentrated near a deadline, Ryan retrospectively refers to it as “good stress,” since when he is “in the zone” he always precisely and successfully completes projects on time. Ryan never misses a deadline, even though he may complete his work at the last minute before it is due. His work is always excellent.

Great managers don’t try to change their employees, according to the eminent business consultant, Marcus Buckingham, but instead, they identify their employees’ unique abilities, recognize their diverse learning and implementation style, and help them use those qualities to excel in their own way.[iii] Understanding how emotions motivate different task completion approaches is important in business relationships, and particularly for people who work in teams. Thus, it is important for managers to recognize that tasks activate emotion that motivates some people, but others may be motivated by emotions around deadlines. Further, whether an employee completes a task early on or at the deadline is less important than evaluating outcome; namely, that the deadline is met and the work reflects the individual’s best efforts.

Productivity can be increased when managers recognize motivational styles and set goals accordingly. Procrastinators and non-procrastinators may work together best, for example, when there are short-term deadlines within a long-term project. This process artificially creates a deadline for those who need one and focuses attention on a particular task for those distracted by many other things to do. As such, this structure effectively makes use of divergent motivational styles. Where procrastinators tend to produce a finished product at a deadline, task-driven people are likely to create a draft of their work, modify it themselves, or assume a co-worker on the project will make modifications later. If completing a task is their primary goal, task-driven people may believe it is done when, in fact, it can be improved by further work. Revisiting or reviewing what they have written will often lead a task-driven person to submit revised documents. These revisions will likely annoy a deadline-driven coworker since those who procrastinate tend to complete work in one draft. Thus, if you receive an e‑mail with the subject line “Read this one instead,” the sender is likely task driven. Conversely, if you receive an e‑mail with an attached document very close to the deadline, it’s probably from a procrastinator.

Kevin, who is a deadline-driven procrastinator, has learned to adapt to one of his task-driven business partners. As he explained it, “He’s the first one out of the box when the firm has a project, always in a hurry to get his part done. There’s an anxiety level he has where he just seems to have to complete things and get them behind him. I really respect his contributions and appreciate how he thinks, but what he produces could be better organized. I’ve just gotten used to rewriting his part. I used to become very annoyed with him and it got in the way of our work. We talked and came to an understanding that it’s just what’s going to happen. He will give me what he’s got and I’ll get the document in perfect shape…at the last minute, of course.”

In the workplace, people may either tend to be acquiescent about motivational style differences or become frustrated about the way someone else gets things done. Task-driven people who believe they get more done than peers who procrastinate may consider it unfair if their peers are equally valued in the organization, and, worse yet, that they get away with doing everything just before a deadline. Procrastinators may not appear to be working on a project or an issue prior to an approaching deadline, and sometimes they are not. However, we generally interpret the behavior of others according to our own standards, values, and way of doing things. For a task-driven person, the incubation period for the procrastinator is time wasted. But for a procrastinator, the constant urgency of a task-driven person is time wasted as well. Instead, when we apply the neutral standard that deadlines are never missed and work quality reflects one’s best efforts, the perspective changes. More beneficial still would be to gain an acceptance of differences, discuss them with co-workers, and together learn how to navigate them.

I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that deadline-driven procrastinators change what has worked for them. And would I hire one? Absolutely.

This post was excerpted in part from What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success.


[i] Nathanson, D.L. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self. New York, NY: Norton; and, Maccoby, M. (2003). The Productive Narcissist. New York, NY: Broadway.

[ii] Lamia, M. (2017). What Motivates Getting Things Done: Procrastination, Emotions, and Success. Langham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.

[iii] Buckingham, M. (2005). The one thing you need to know… About great managing, great leading, and sustained individual success. New York, NY: Free Press, p. 5

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