Psychologue du travail et psychologue clinicienne
Are you the kind of procrastinator who waits until the last minute to work on that big project you should have started a month ago? If so, this article is for you! Our sense of organization is part of who we are. Generally, we develop work habits that make us more productive, but sometimes, our professional habits are not enough to meet the demands of our work.
Those who always work last-minute can operate under pressure, be perfectionists, or feel the need to spice up their professional lives with adrenaline. Urgency at work can be a performance booster, while also taking a serious toll on energy and psychological well-being. So, what kind of last-minute worker are you?
Today, we often move at a breakneck pace and struggle to distinguish what’s “urgent” from the “important” or “necessary,” which complicates our ability to prioritize. Workplace conversations are littered with expressions like “I’m buried in work” and “I don’t have a minute to myself,” creating the idea that urgency is all around us. However, contrary to how we may feel, not everything is urgent.
Incentives to push our limits, be productive, and always work faster can leave us with flawed urgency management. But for many, it’s is a way of life. People addicted to urgency are motivated by it, relying on it to manage tasks both at home and at work. For those who struggle to motivate themselves, external pressure in the professional environment from clients and/or bosses, or the risk that work won’t be finished on time can help spur them into action.
For some, the only way to do something, and do it well, is with the sword of Damocles dangling above their heads: Time constraints. For those addicted to rushing, when there’s no other choice left, this approach generally doesn’t create problems. In fact, the urgency motivates them and pushes them to exceed limits. They walk the tightrope between the good stress that motivates and the bad stress that can be paralyzing.
“It’s adrenaline that makes me productive. Because I know that, no matter what, I don’t have a choice anymore and I have to do it. When there’s a goal of success, that boosts me”—Clémentine, 24, psychologist
Agathe, a 29-year-old graphic designer, says, “I use urgency to manage everything. From a simple task like errands or cleaning to managing my big professional projects. When, for example, I don’t have any choice because someone is coming over for dinner, I clean my home like never before. I never do things better than when I don’t have any time left.”
For others, this need to feel rushed to take action triggers their procrastination habits. For them, the task at hand isn’t motivating at all. Without the looming threat of negative consequences, they won’t do it. Procrastination, or the art of putting off work that isn’t motivating, can be a major obstacle at work. For people who behave like this, deadlines and external pressure propel them to action because they don’t have a choice, and are aware of the risk if they don’t deliver what’s expected of them.
“Someone needs to put pressure on me and give me a deadline. It’s especially effective when things don’t motivate me”—Clémentine
Working with urgency can also be a manifestation of perfectionism for some. Without imposed deadlines, finished work never feels satisfying to them. If they don’t have a concrete date, they can turn in work well after the allotted time frame. An imposed timeline allows them to move from the conception phase to execution. Without this, their mental draft is constantly revised and will probably evolve over a longer period of time. The pressure of a deadline improves their performance and boosts productivity.
Agathe explains: “My drafts are mental. And the drafts that I make before the realization of a project are so detailed that’s it’s practically done already. So I never really take a break because my brain is working the whole time, so I always have the feeling of working.”
She also tells us that this system motivates her to take on larger projects: “For example, I was tasked with creating a newspaper from scratch. We talked about it in July and I started to work on it properly one week before the deadline. I did everything in four days and three nights. But my brain had been working the whole time. I had been conceptualizing. Which is problematic for others because they don’t know what’s going on in your brain.”
For Clémentine, however, the draft is also a superfluous step: “I won’t make a draft, but I’ll think about it for a long time. I prefer to prepare what I want to say in my head and then move straight on to the creation.”
So we can recognize that the last-minute strategy can be very different from always being rushed and never having time. The adrenaline of the deadline motivates people who struggle with concrete action to deliver something tangible. However, while economic models may value the urgency method, it also features many setbacks.
“It helps make me be hyper-productive”—Clémentine
The stress and anxiety of feeling like you won’t have the work done on time: Waiting until the last minute to work and cramming a big project into just a few days or hours can create lots of anxiety. Physical symptoms, such as stomach aches, headaches, and digestive problems are often a manifestation of the stress your body is experiencing. If the anxiety becomes too intense, it can be paralyzing and lead you to abandon the idea of finishing anything. Stress also has its limits when it comes to motivation, and bad stress can have serious consequences. If this kind of time management becomes your only strategy, it can create chronic stress and affect your mental and physical health. All these factors, combined with asking too much of yourself, increase the risk of burnout.
“Sometimes I regret it, because I think about the work for a long time beforehand and then it ruins the moments where I’m ‘not doing anything’ but can’t stop thinking about what I should be doing and how to do it”—Clémentine
“Sometimes I spend my nights working, but if I had done it two days earlier, everything would have worked out well”—Agathe
“For teamwork, it’s difficult. It’s true that it can cause my colleagues to stress and worry. They often ask me how far I’ve got and if I’m progressing. I end up stressing everyone else out when I’m not stressed at all”—Agathe
“I’ve lost projects because I sent proposals for things like a brand’s visual identity too late. It’s ultimately like I didn’t really give myself a chance”—Agathe
In summary, leaving work until the last minute is a very contemporary work hazard. Both praised and criticized, this time-management tactic is subject to many contradictory societal messages. You must be able to work with urgency and handle pressure, all while not pushing it too far and risking looking unprofessional. Also, if you work in this way, it’s important to understand why, to be sure that you’re being the most productive you can be under these conditions. If you’re not, you need to learn to frame your sense of organization and your penchant for procrastination to avoid overdoing it, and also remain aware of the eventual mental and physical consequences. It’s crucial to listen to yourself, to know which organizational method best suits you, and to not hesitate to communicate with your team and boss to avoid tension.
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Translated by Kate Lindsmith
Psychologue du travail et psychologue clinicienne