Four key types of time abuser are commonly found in the workplace. Recognising the tell-tale traits (in ourselves and others), and tracing their origins, will enable us to address the underlying anxiety and to change or manage our behaviours, to the benefit of all.
“My name is X and I’m a chronic time abuser”, is not the way we tend to introduce ourselves to our colleagues. But perhaps it should be.
Like any other self-destructive behaviour, time abuse undermines personal effectiveness, impacting our performance and relationships. Time abusers tend to be immune to time-management strategies because their behaviour results from deep-seated psychological conflicts linked to an unconscious fear of negative judgement and failure, rather than any real inability to organise their ‘to-do’ list more elegantly.
Tackling time abuse therefore lies in addressing the causes of anxiety. This begins with understanding the four key types of time abuser pinpointed by clinical psychologist Steven Berglas, and recognising their trademark behaviours in ourselves and others.
Next, we must discover where our anxieties stem from and find ways to manage and overcome them. While coaching can certainly help, professional support may even be needed to help us unravel the reasons why we behave as we do; many hark back to childhood experiences and may be deeply entwined with our sense of identity.
While the ‘four Ps’ have their own characteristics, they have one thing in common: all are highly inflexible individuals who strongly believe they are doing the best job possible. They can be challenging to manage because they respond differently from most people to criticism and approval.
The Four Ps of time abuse:
- The Perfectionist chases perfection in their work to avoid criticism at any cost.
- The Procrastinator makes endless excuses (which often sound reasonable) for not producing work to mask their fear of being found inadequate in their role.
- The Pre-emptive maintains control by submitting work far earlier than necessary, finding themselves unpopular and out of sync with co-workers.
- The People Pleaser has a deep-seated need to please everyone, overcommitting to work and becoming overwhelmed.
To understand these behaviours and what lies behind them, we must delve deeper into the four personas – and then consider possible strategies for mitigation.
The red flag of perfectionism
In Albert Camus’ novel La Peste, Joseph Grand – a middle-aged clerk for the city government – dreams of writing a literary masterpiece. However, his extreme perfectionism and desire to make an overwhelming impression on his publisher compel him to rewrite the first sentence over and again. He agonises over the rhythm and despairs over syntax. He fretfully arranges and rearranges his words deep into the night, while the city around him is laid to waste by pestilence.
Grand’s ceaseless cycle of revision highlights the self-defeating nature of perfectionism. Often cited as a ‘faux fault’ in job interviews, it is, in fact, more vice than virtue. While being conscientious and diligent is a good thing, perfectionists strive not for excellence but for flawlessness, refusing to accept any standard short of perfection. A perfectionist’s identity is inextricably linked with their achievements.
If we display perfectionist traits, we are likely to be highly self-critical and almost pathologically unable to bear negative evaluation from others. We are hard on ourselves when things go badly, replaying and magnifying mistakes; we indulge in all-or-nothing thinking, interpreting setbacks as potential catastrophes. And we are hard on others who do not meet the same standards that we set for ourselves, which makes us uncompromising, intimidating managers. Perfectionists can be brilliant overachievers who produce high-quality work – but also controlling stress-spreaders whose emotional contagion undermines deadlines and budgets.
They may also be depressed when their (unrealistic) standards are not met. It’s no surprise, then, that perfectionism has been linked to a raft of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and self-harm; it’s a vulnerability factor in suicide and linked to early mortality.
Perfectionist thinking tends to start young, since its origins lie in critical parents and excessive testing at school; a 2016 longitudinal study found that a focus on academic achievement predicts a later increase in perfectionism. Perfectionists are ultimately searching for the approval that was unattainable in childhood.
As a result, a perfectionist is essentially “someone who is too vulnerable to feeling ashamed of his productions ever to give anyone less than the best”, explains Berglas.
Worryingly, perfectionism is on the rise according to a meta-analysis of rates of perfectionism from 1986-2016, which compared perfectionism across generations. This found significant increases among more recent undergraduates in the US, the UK and Canada, arguably triggered by hyper-consumerism and reinforced by social media’s unrelenting pressure to present an ideal life to the world.
Perfectionism in practice
Cautionary examples of extreme perfectionists are legion. The impressionist painter and notorious depressive Claude Monet was so self-critical that he slashed to pieces as many as 500 painting over his lifetime that did not meet his high standards. In 1908 alone, he destroyed at least 15 paintings before an exhibition, any of which would have been worth millions today.
More recently, Steve Jobs was well known for screaming at subordinates and obsessing over irrelevant details. “He sits in a restaurant and sends his food back three times. He arrives at his hotel suite in New York for press interviews and decides, at 10pm, that the piano needs to be repositioned,” wrote author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker.
To avoid similar derailments in our own lives, we must look out for the red flags of perfectionism, whether we are taking 30 minutes to craft a two-line email or creating brilliantly constructed but half-finished reports. We might find ourselves working weekends, missing deadlines and busting budgets. At its worst, perfectionism frequently results in workaholism and burnout.
Recognising these signs in ourselves may involve listening carefully to feedback – which tends to be a problem for perfectionists, for whom any criticism is met with fear and defensiveness. To avoid it, we may fail to disclose situations in which we have been shown to be less than perfect. This means we have little experience of failure or of the learning and growth that comes with owning it. To this end, perfectionism is the enemy of entrepreneurism.
Perhaps worst of all, there is no end point to perfectionism. Not only are perfectionists rarely satisfied with their work, but the more they achieve, the more they pressure themselves to achieve, so the drive to meet goals becomes a self-perpetuating and never-ending cycle.
Though getting to the bottom of extreme perfectionist thinking requires careful psychological reflection and analysis to recognise our triggers and root causes, there are strategies that can loosen its grip.
Berglas recommends a technique known as ‘flooding’, where perfectionists are encouraged to get as many colleagues as possible to evaluate their work prior to submitting it for final approval. Doing this will subject us to ‘low doses’ of criticism, inoculating us against our dread of evaluation.
In decision-making, exchanging a ‘maximising’ mentality for a ‘satisficing’ mindset will steer us away from torturous attempts to make perfect choices. For example, instead of researching every restaurant in town before selecting the ideal venue for a client lunch, we book one that is simply ‘good enough’, reducing the mental energy spent ‘chasing the best’.
Meanwhile, acknowledging our perfectionist tendences, challenging our inner critic, practising self-compassion and making a conscious decision to work at being ‘good enough’ may help us to dial down our unhealthy behaviours. After all, as the writer Henry James asserted: “Excellence does not require perfection”.
How procrastination kills potential
The secret fear that we do not have what it takes to achieve excellence is at the heart of the second P of procrastination – the commonest time abuse of all (though one that can be harnessed to our advantage in specific circumstances).
Like perfectionists, these time abusers struggle with the concept of failing, regularly running late with their work. However, while the former take their time producing ‘nothing but the best’, procrastinators default to ongoing delays, often failing to deliver anything at all or falling back on excuses for overdue or substandard work.
Postponing tasks unnecessarily can become an artform for the procrastinator; for example, at school, we design extravagant revision timetables, only to run out of time for actual revision. At work, we spend so many hours on easy or trivial activities that we never get round to the critical parts of our role – those important but less urgent tasks on the Eisenhower Matrix, for example. Little windows of productivity may be interspersed with longer periods of ‘cyberslacking’, chatting with colleagues or daydreaming. We may find ourselves frequently side-tracked by sudden crises – from illness to train cancellations.
Such crises serve to excuse poor or incomplete work without damaging the procrastinator’s reputation or self-esteem; they might even give both a boost where good work is submitted ‘against the odds’. “Just imagine what I might have produced had I not felt ill,” we declare.
The most extreme procrastinators fall victim to unconscious self-sabotage, protecting themselves against failure by opting not to try in the first place. We might be due to present to a client but accidentally ‘forget’ our phone, going back for it and arriving late for our session. When our pitch doesn’t go smoothly, we are able to put the blame on an unfortunate oversight rather than any lack of skill.
Again, psychologists hark back to childhood for the origins of procrastination. With perfectionists, excess parental criticism and expectation give rise to a need for approval. But procrastinators tend to be brought up by parents who give nothing but praise, no matter how inaccurate or undeserved this may be. Rather than offering constructive feedback in the face of disappointment, they demonstrate that they cannot tolerate their child’s failure, making excuses on their behalf (“it wasn’t a fair test”; “you were led astray”). Their child grows up with an exalted opinion of their abilities – and a fear of testing and losing it.
Later in life, this person (who has come to recognise that their parents’ praise is often unjustified) subconsciously distrusts all praise from anyone. Where they do receive public acclaim this makes them feel worse rather than better. “The procrastinator fears that a promotion will increase his likelihood of failure; even well-earned praise serves only to exacerbate his need to finesse another deadline,” warns Berglas.
Around a quarter of adults consider procrastination to be a defining personality trait, but for some of us it is chronic and career limiting.
Eighteenth century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (who left much of his work unfinished or in fragments) described his procrastination as “a deep and wide disease in my moral nature”, which was expressed (rather than explained) by his love of liberty, pleasure and spontaneity.
His management strategy – a debilitating opium habit – did little to address its causes. But solutions do exist. For example, Berglas recommends “emphatic catastrophising”, which encourages procrastinators to confront their fears head on by actively imagining what would happen if they delivered average work without their usual face-saving delays or excuses. The aim here is to show them that, however painful it might feel, they will survive any critical feedback or awkward conversations. Telling procrastinators that a project is at beta stage may also lower their anxiety about not getting it right first time, reducing the likelihood of self-sabotage.
When tackling our own procrastination, the act of scheduling unappealing tasks in our diary helps us to stick to them, according to behavioural economist Daniel Ariely, while commitment (or Ulysses) devices lock us in to behaviour change by linking it to a reward or punishment. Just as Ulysses escaped the call of the Sirens by tying himself to the mast of his ship, we can find strategies to resist our temptations.
This may include pre-paying for a service – such as the gym or professional training – to push us to use it, or imposing penalties on ourselves for failing to comply with our intentions. Such commitments help to enforce if-then plans. (If I fail to finish my report this morning, then I will not allow myself to go for lunch with friends.)
Today, there are apps and websites that commit users to achieving their goals using contracts with real stakes – but low-tech methods have always been open to us. For example, writer Victor Hugo ordered his valet to confiscate his clothes so that he couldn’t go out or entertain guests and had to finish his novel. It worked like a dream and The Hunchback of Notre Dame was published two weeks early on 14 January 1831.
Similarly, author Douglas Adams ordered his editor to lock him in his hotel suite for several weeks to force him to work. And Raymond Chandler asserted self-control by sitting in an empty office with just a typewriter and two rules: 1) he didn’t have to write; 2) he couldn’t do anything else.
Meanwhile, ‘temptation bundling’ (or reward substitution) involves only engaging in a pleasurable activity when it’s combined with something we want to encourage ourselves to do more often (for example, only eating our favourite biscuits when doing our least favourite admin).
As Ariely points out: “We are not designed to care about the future. We just can’t change that. So instead, we can… import new benefits for the present.”
In this, he acknowledges that we can only ever hope to manage, rather than eradicate procrastination, (perhaps using it to our advantage, on occasion, by practising so-called ‘structured procrastination’, where we play projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another). It’s a part of human nature to a greater or lesser extent, and comes in a range of forms.
However, when our delaying tactics becomes extreme, chronic and career-threatening, we must address them or squander our time and potential.
In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius scolds us: “Think of all the years passed by in which you said to yourself ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ and how the gods have again and again granted you periods of grace of which you have not availed yourself. It is time to realise that you are a member of the universe, that you are born of nature itself, and to know that a limit has been set to your time.”
The isolation of the early birds
Taking Aurelius’ advice to heart are the (much rarer) pre-emptives, using their time productively and frequently beating the clock to boot. These early birds always complete assignments ahead of schedule, putting the rest of us to shame. Not for this P the excesses of procrastination or perfectionism. On the face of it, these are reliable, low-maintenance workers whose flaws therefore fly under the radar for long periods.
However, at the heart of their efficiency lies a need for control and a lack of adaptability – potentially due to being brought up in a disruptive home environment, where rules changed and disorder reigned. Pre-emptives struggle not to submit their work early because they have a fear of chaos and flounder in the face of unpredictable demands. Essentially, they are intent on minimising disruption by making a pre-emptive strike against disorder.
The problem is that they often fall out of step with their co-workers, working in a silo of their own making which is not conducive to collaboration. This can lead to morale issues among their peers and festering resentment. As they grow increasingly out of sync with others, they may not be available when their input is needed during group or iterative activities.
To mitigate this in our direct reports, we can appoint pre-emptives to head initiatives or projects, making responsibility for getting the best out of others a key part of their remit. This gets them used to unpredictable demands, encourages flexibility and increases their social interactions.
Making them a mentor to a colleague can help them in a similar way. If we know we are pre-emptive ourselves, taking on a mentorship role is a good way of developing some of the collaboration skills we lack in the workplace, and leaving the orderly confinement of our silo to the benefit of our relationships with others.
The heavy burden of people pleasing
For tips on social interaction we might look to our fourth P, the people pleasers, who are invariably helpful and personable team players. But herein lies their fatal flaw. Popularity is the drug of choice of the people pleaser and being liked is core to their identity. They often go out of their way to please colleagues, even if this diverts their own time and resources away from themselves.
There is no shame in taking pleasure in supporting others, and many who like to do so make loyal and conscientious employees. However, “people pleasers are taught to subordinate their desires for the good of others – notably their parents,” explains Berglas. The message they receive is that their needs and feelings are less important, and they consequently develop a craving for appreciation and validation. They default to behaviours of compliance and conformity not simply out of generosity but due to fear of social discord and ostracism.
It should be noted that people pleasing presents less commonly in men than in women, who still tend to be conditioned by society to be caretakers, and are expected to be pleasant and accommodating. Firm, assertive women are often perceived as high-maintenance or ‘difficult’. Unpicking this learnt behaviour therefore involves challenging stereotypes and social programming.
Signs of dysfunction
Dysfunction is apparent in the workplace when our need to go above and beyond prevents us from saying “no” to anyone or anything and we become overwhelmed, scrambling to meet our personal commitments, excelling at nothing as we are spread too thinly and finding ourselves tired and resentful. Without praise and acknowledgement, suppressed rage may lead us to quit suddenly, moan incessantly to third parties or indulge in time-abusing behaviours; for example, people pleasers may sit on a project that should be handed to somebody with enough time to work on it.
People pleasing can also be controlling rather than altruistic, encouraging others to lean on us, and thereby weakening their own productivity and creativity, while leaving them unfairly indebted (we will see this trait echoed in the ‘Rescuer’ persona in the Drama Triangle which we will explore in the Communications Module). It can signify an inability to delegate, or represent a form of procrastination. We are so busy doing things for others that we are able to put our own challenges on hold. It doesn’t even make us nicer than others, just more desperate to appear so.
No matter our conscious or unconscious motivations, the sad truth is that people pleasing may gain us friends but it doesn’t win us respect. We may be considerate and supportive but we are overlooked for leadership positions because we are not perceived to be tough enough to make difficult decisions or to survive confrontation.
Managing people pleasing
Despite feeling like a victim of other people’s unreasonable demands, people pleasers can find strategies to overcome their learnt behaviour, once they can see it for what it is. They may need to be coaxed into disclosure – on the back of a personality test that highlights their high score in ‘agreeableness’, for example. People pleasers are only likely to talk about their struggles when they feel entirely safe to do so. In this regard, they may act as a barometer of psychological safety. If a people pleaser feels their voice is heard, they will be less likely to vote with their feet.
When we note people-pleasing tendencies in ourselves, we should practise saying “no”, with the help of a strategic delaying tactic. For example, saying “let me get back to you” gives us a chance to ask ourselves the following questions:
- Do I have time and energy for this commitment?
- Will taking it on detract from another area or commitment that’s important to me or my role?
Where it’s a “no”, offering alternatives will help soften the blow and ensure we feel comfortable with the interaction.
Investing in assertiveness training for people pleasers can help them to set limits and address their repressed anger. As their manager, there will also be a need to monitor their workload, praising them for focusing on their own priorities and protecting them from manipulation by others. Giving in to social pressure is the default for people pleasers, who are often morbidly afraid of confrontation.
Finally, role-modelling and encouraging self-care will be of benefit to all, but especially to people pleasers who, like perfectionists, may work themselves to the bone in a bid to impress. Rewarding healthy behaviours, rather than automatically giving praise for early starts or weekend working, sets the tone and makes personal wellbeing a goal to aspire to.
Overcoming our P-traits for the long term
No matter which P-traits we recognise in ourselves, to win out against them we must be prepared to scrutinise our actions, to identify dysfunction and reflect on its causes. Personality assessments and exercises such as the Johari Window will help us to gain the perspective of others, unearthing blind spots.
While there is no easy way of snapping out of ingrained behaviours – which are often developed early in childhood – having the self-awareness to stare them in the face (as well as the ability to note them in others) is the first step on the road to overcoming them and dodging the derailers that threaten to undermine our potential and the smooth running of our teams and organisations.
Test your understanding
- Describe the four Ps of time abuse and their defining characteristics.
- What is the first step towards overcoming them for the long term?
What does it mean for you?
- Consider which (if any) of the ‘four Ps’ you might be prone to, looking back at your personality assessment, strengths and weaknesses, and Johari Window.
- How might you develop practical strategies to help team members who show signs of any of the four Ps of time abuse?
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