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January – June 2020

procrastinating

How a smartphone app can help employees beat procrastinating

By Sam Orton

  • AUG 2020
20 minutes to read

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Wasted time is wasted money

Up to one in four adults think of themselves as procrastinators. Despite the increasing prevalence of procrastination in the workplace, current interventions aimed at reducing procrastination are mostly based on traditional approaches like cognitive behaviour therapy which includes time management, learned industriousness, modelling and goal setting.

A significant amount of research has been done on the use of games in psychotherapy. As more and more people use their smartphones as gaming devices, why not explore a smartphone-based app to help people manage their procrastination habits? This is exactly what this study set out to do.

Up to one in four adults think of themselves as procrastinators.

Taking a closer look at procrastination

Procrastination is a complex phenomenon. It affects 45% of adults at some point in their lives. It is even higher among students. In one study, approximately 50% of college students regarded themselves as chronic procrastinators, while 75% considered themselves typical procrastinators, and 80% to 95% of students admitted that they procrastinate to some extent. Procrastination is also a significant indicator of ADHD.

For companies, procrastination means the loss of money due to non-productive and poor performing employees. For employees, it leads to stress, anxiety and reduced employability.

Definitions of procrastination touch on the psychological distress as a result of postponing or failing to complete a task or activity, even while knowing there would be negative consequences. This delay is voluntary or intentional and yet irrational. The reasons for procrastination include task aversion, learned helplessness, irrational beliefs, low self-efficacy, lack of persistence, and fear of failure.

There is a strong correlation between poor work performance and procrastination in those people who miss deadlines more often than non-procrastinators, make more mistakes, and work slower. This negates the misconception that procrastinators work best under pressure.

As more and more people use their smartphones as gaming devices, why not explore a smartphone-based app to help people manage their procrastination habits?

Procrastination in the workplace

Very few studies have explored procrastination in the work environment. One reason for this could be the lack of an instrument designed for dealing with procrastination in the modern-day workplace.

Different types of jobs are associated with different levels of procrastination. A variety of studies found that high-status workers experience an increased prevalence of procrastination. Self-employed professionals, like lawyers and doctors, were found to procrastinate more than white-collar workers. White-collar workers procrastinate more than blue-collar workers. Tightly supervised workers in constrained environments reported higher levels of procrastination. However, when employees perceive their jobs as meaningful they tend to procrastinate less.

Procrastination in the workplace typically leads to two types of behaviours, namely soldiering and cyberslacking. Soldiering occurs when employees avoid work-related duties to indulge in more pleasurable activities like extended coffee breaks. Avoiding work-related duties leads to low self-efficacy, which in turn results in a destructive pattern of substandard work performance. When employees are cyberslacking, they may appear to be working on their desktops, laptops or mobile devices, when they are actually checking their social media, playing games or doing online shopping.

For companies, procrastination means the loss of money due to non-productive and poor performing employees. For employees, it leads to stress, anxiety and reduced employability.

Why do people procrastinate?

Here are some of the reasons why people procrastinate in the workplace:

  • Abstract goals: People tend to procrastinate when goals are not clearly defined. For example, a goal like ‘start living healthier’ is vague, while a goal like ‘exercise on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, between 5 pm and 6 pm’ will more likely to lead to action
  • Rewards that are far in the future: People often procrastinate on tasks with rewards that will only materialise in the future. This phenomenon is known as temporal discounting. The award becomes less significant the further it is in the future.
  • A disconnect from our future self: People often fail to see the connection between their present and future self – a phenomenon called temporal disjunction. So they delay starting the healthy diet because they see it as their future self’s problem.
  • Optimism about the future: People procrastinate because they are confident that they will be able to complete a task sometime in the future. However, they often underestimate the amount of time it will take to complete the task. This is known as planning fallacy.
  • Indecisiveness: People often postpone tasks because they cannot prioritise or make a final decision. So they over-think the situation – a phenomenon called choice paralysis or analysis paralysis. This happens when there are too many options or when the options are too similar. The greater the impact of the decision, the harder it becomes to decide.
  • Feeling overwhelmed: People often procrastinate when they feel overwhelmed by a task. This usually happens when the task is too big or too complex.
  • Anxiety: When people feel anxious about a specific task, they tend to procrastinate. For example, people who are anxious about their finances may postpone drawing up a budget, even though the postponement will not solve their financial woes.
  • Task aversion: An example of this is when a person keep on postponing an important business call because they do not enjoy speaking to the particular individual.
  • Perfectionism: Wanting to produce high-quality work is not unreasonable. However, problems arise when people fail to complete tasks because they strive for perfection.
  • Fear of negative feedback: Sometimes people procrastinate because they are scared of being evaluated. This fear is often irrational or unjustified. At the same time, fear of negative feedback can motivate people to finish on time.
  • Fear of failure: The more important the task, the bigger the risk that it could get postponed. Low self-esteem or a lack of confidence can aggravate the fear of failure and result in continued procrastination. Yet, fear of failure can also motivate people to work harder.
  • Low self-efficacy: People who do not believe in their innate ability to complete a task successfully or to reach a goal often procrastinate.
  • Lack of control: Many people procrastinate because they cannot control the outcome of an event. People also use delay tactics when believe they will receive criticism no matter how much effort they put into a task. Individuals who are internally orientated are more inclined to complete tasks while externally orientated individuals are more inclined to procrastinate.
  • Motivation: Procratinators usually lack motivation. Lack of motivation is often a problem where motivation is extrinsic (like working for money) rather than intrinsic (feeling a sense of pride in doing a good job).
  • Laziness: Idleness refers to a basic unwillingness to make the effort to complete a task, even though a person may be fully capable of doing do.
  • Prioritising of short-term satisfaction: People often procrastinate because they prioritise their emotions and do things to feel better at that moment. This kind of procrastination is known as short-term mood repair. Students neglect assignments by watching TV, playing video games or checking their social media because it is more pleasant in the short term.

When employees perceive their jobs as meaningful they tend to procrastinate less.

The use of games in psychotherapy

The use of games in psychotherapy is well researched. Also, the popularity of smartphones as gaming devices has grown exponentially. So, why not use gamification principles to improve the outcome of smartphone-based interventions aimed at treating procrastination?

Today, gamification has come to mean “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. When people play games, they experience enjoyment, competence, mastery, engagement and flow – all elements of intrinsic motivation in human behaviour. The fundamental concept of gamification is to use this motivational ability of games for different reasons – not only for entertainment purposes.

In gamification, games have explicit rules. The player needs to stick to the rules to achieve a specific outcome. It is not free-form playing. Gamified applications typically include game elements such as feedback, narrative, reputation, rank, competition, explicit rules, avatars, three-dimensional environments, a marketplace and economies, teams, and time pressure.

Using games to motivate people

The motivational use of gamification is underpinned by self-determination theory (SDT). SDT explains the motivational pull of gamification, and distinguishes between two forms of motivation, namely extrinsic and intrinsic behaviour. People are extrinsically motivated when they do something for an external reward like praise or money. People are intrinsically motivated when they do an activity because it is enjoyable or exciting. Although both encourage increased performance, intrinsic motivation is also linked to better mental health, increased creativity and increased effort.

Today, gamification has come to mean “the use of game design elements in non-game contexts”. When people play games, they experience enjoyment, competence, mastery, engagement and flow – all elements of intrinsic motivation in human behaviour.

Cognitive evaluation theory (CET) is a sub-theory of SDT that explains how external stimuli affects intrinsic motivation. In terms of CET, people have three basic psychological needs – autonomy, competence and social relatedness – when performing tasks or activities. When these needs are satisfied, they promote intrinsic motivation. Autonomy refers to the psychological aspect of choice and volition to choose how and when to fulfil tasks. Psychological freedom relates to the alignment of decision making with one’s interests and values, whereas volition refers to the sense of performing a task without pressure from external sources. Competence is based on perceived effectiveness and the achievement of results. Social relatedness is the need to belong, to be cared for and to be attached to another person or to a group.

It therefore follows that intrinsic motivation will flourish when the environment encourages competence, autonomy and relatedness. Gamification can modify the work environment through the addition of game elements that promote these fundamental needs, thereby encouraging intrinsic motivation.

Goal-setting theory can also help to explain the motivational power of gamification. Goal setting emphasises the entire journey of finishing a goal as opposed to focusing only on the results. Games with goals can therefore help to reduce procrastination.

What this research set out to do

This study evaluated the relationship between gamification and procrastination by determining to what extent the integration of the motivational constructs of self-determination theory, which explains the motivational pull behind gamification, can reduce procrastination.

The study was conducted in two phases. During the initial quantitative phase, retail business unit managers were asked to complete a questionnaire to determine their procrastination levels at work. The 12 managers who showed the highest propensity to procrastinate, continued to the second qualitative phase of the study. The 12 participants were asked to use the gamified productivity app Habitica on their smartphones for four weeks. After the four weeks, semi-structured interviews were conducted to find out whether the use of app reduced their procrastination.

What did the study find?

The study confirmed the link between intrinsic motivation and procrastination. The four themes that emerged from the interviews explain the impact of game elements introduced through gamification on each of the psychological needs within the self-determination and goal-setting theories.

Theme 1: Gamification and procrastination

According to the participants, they procrastinated at work because of task aversion, lack of autonomy and the absence of motivation as they were “not allowed to deviate from their daily routine”. Examples were also given of vague goals, a lack of guidance, and the inability to prioritise.

They were excited about gamification as a possible solution to their procrastination behaviour. They experienced gamification as useful in combatting procrastination and even suggested adding mini-games to improve engagement. One participant explained that the simple act of ticking off tasks and gaining levels in the gamified environment served as sufficient distraction to make her feel less overwhelmed. The gamified system increased the participants’ perceived autonomy and enabled them to move beyond indecisiveness. After the four weeks, when participants were asked if they would continue to use the app to reduce procrastination, 75% said they would.

Theme 2: Gamification helps to reduce procrastination by increasing a sense of autonomy

The self-determination theory says autonomy is one of the basic psychological needs that underlie motivation in the workplace. Understanding how gamification can create autonomy in the workplace can lead to more effective ways to create intrinsic motivation. Higher intrinsic motivation can then be leveraged to promote engagement, task enjoyment and improved performance.

It was clear that the participants valued autonomy. Yet, they felt restricted by their companies’ systems, policies and procedures – including an online diary system that maps out their daily routines.

Gamification enhances the perception of free choice by introducing autonomy-supportive game elements that allow users to customise the particular aspect of the gamified environment or to make decisions about aesthetics or activities. Of the participants, 92% believed that the gamification of their current work systems would make them more motivated and productive.

… intrinsic motivation will flourish when the environment encourages competence, autonomy and relatedness. Gamification can modify the work environment through the addition of game elements that promote these fundamental needs.

Theme 3: Gamification promotes competence, stimulates productivity and helps with goal setting

Competence in the context of the self-determination theory refers to people’s need to feel competent within their environment. Approximately 75% of the participants indicated that the introduction of gamification elements made them feel more competent.

Leaderboards, points and levels have become synonymous with gamification. As individuals finish real-world tasks and tick off the corresponding items in the app, they earn experience points that enable them to level up within the gamified environment. The participants mentioned that earning rewards and gaining experience motivated them and made them feel more competent, regardless of working in a controlled environment. This would suggest that the autonomy-supportive elements of the game are pivotal in the work environment to ensure that competency-supportive elements yield the necessary results to promote intrinsic motivation.

The participants also commented that earning points and gaining levels made them change the way they prioritise their day. Some of the participants indicated that they normally start their day with easier tasks, which often means procrastinating on the more challenging tasks. Now the app has motivated them to start with the more challenging tasks first.

Theme 4: Gamification promotes relatedness and reduces procrastination

The final component of the self-determination theory is the need for relatedness. In the workplace, the need for relatedness is satisfied when employees feel that they are respected, valued for their contribution, and are included at all levels.

The participants indicated that they often felt isolated in their jobs because they had to maintain a professional distance between them and their subordinates. This made it difficult to develop close relationships in the work context. The gaming app allowed the participants to chat with other users in a virtual chat room, join challenges or create their own challenges. Some 58% of the participants confirmed this aspect. The participants also created a WhatsApp group among them.

The participants said that they felt social pressure to perform along with other members of the chat group, alluding to the motivational power of relatedness. The more productive they became, the less they procrastinated.

Key take-outs from the study

The findings show that gamification can indeed tame procrastination by satisfying the following psychological needs identified in the self-determination theory:

  • Autonomy: Companies often restrict autonomy through their systems, policies and procedures. Gamification provides elements like avatars and customisation options to employees that create the perception of autonomy and mitigate the lack of workplace autonomy. The study found that most of the participants felt a greater sense of autonomy despite working in non-autonomous environments. Satisfying the need for autonomy promotes intrinsic motivation and makes tasks more meaningful, which could reduce procrastination in tasks perceived as meaningless or of less value.
  • Competence: Gaming elements like levels and rewards satisfy the need for competency by providing constant positive feedback, something that is often lacking in the workplace. Gamification motivated participants by providing visual confirmation of their competence which in turn reduced procrastination. Task aversion, fear of failure, low self-efficacy and feeling overwhelmed are all causes of procrastination that can be mitigated by satisfying the need for competency.
  • Relatedness: The gamification app increased the participants’ sense of relatedness. The app allowed them to connect to peers through virtual channels. Social pressure among peers to perform well resulted in increased productivity and reduced procrastination. The hierarchical structure in the retail sector places even more emphasis on the need for relatedness and the potential usefulness of gamification. The app illustrated that the need for relatedness can be satisfied through a game.

Goal setting emphasises the entire journey of finishing a goal as opposed to focusing only on the results. Games with goals can therefore help to reduce procrastination.

The study set out to determine to what extent the integration of self-determination and goal-setting theories with a smartphone-based gamified app can reduce procrastination in the workplace. Gamification can indeed modify the work environment through the addition of game elements that encourage intrinsic motivation. This is worth exploring as a viable solution to the costly and complex problem of procrastination.

  • This article is based on the MBA research assignment of USB alumnus Samuel Joseph Charles Orton. The title of his assignment is “The relationship between procrastination and gamification”.
  • His study leader was Prof Mias de Klerk who is head of Research at USB. Prof De Klerk is a professor in Leadership and Organisational Behaviour at USB, and Director of USB’s Centre for Responsible Leadership Studies (Africa).

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