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Doing Nothing & Procrastinating Aren’t the Same Thing

Doing Nothing & Procrastinating Aren’t the Same Thing

    You sit down to write a paper. You’ve done all the research you could possibly need to do, but for some reason, you just can’t get started.

    Does this mean you’re procrastinating? Ask most anyone and they’ll tell you that you are, but it’s not necessarily true. The things we write aren’t simply a culmination of the research we’ve done into a topic. The mind needs to process new information before it can work with it, and even then, there’s still the matter of what you are going to write about it.

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    You might think you just need to do some research and get writing, and this is why you sit at the screen unsure of where to start. You haven’t let the project germinate, and it’s like trying to harvest the fruit from a tree while it’s still a seed in the ground. Your brain needs to process that research before it can work with it.

    Now, I’ll add a disclaimer here because statements like these often become excuses for those who are truly procrastinators. Just because you sit down and can’t get started writing doesn’t necessarily mean you need more germination time. It may just mean you’re plain lazy. If you’ve been sitting on that 500 word article for a month and haven’t started writing yet, I’d put a bet on the fact that you’ve had enough time to incubate your ideas. But this is all relative to the size of the task and, continuing with writing as our analogy since that’s what I do all day every day, a month’s germination time won’t be anywhere near enough time to mentally flesh out a twelve-book fantasy saga.

    I’ve spoken to computer programmers in the past who have found the same thing; if they run head first into coding, they hit walls, even if they’ve sketched out some diagrams that look workable. On the other hand, if they spend the afternoon washing dishes while the programming is relegated to the back of their mind, or they sleep on it, the subconscious gets the time to process all the information and goals and feed the mind with ideas.

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    Allowing a germination period works so well that programmers, writers and other creators alike can often end up spending just hours or days tackling a project that would’ve taken weeks or months had they rushed in.

    Not Just for Creatives and Problem-Solvers

    This principle doesn’t just apply to those who produce the written word or computer software or works of art for a living. It applies to everyone who has to do something that doesn’t come with an instruction book.

    For instance, if you know you’re moving house in a month but you’ll only have a weekend between the time you get your new keys and the time you give the old ones back, the best thing you can do is let that problem sit in the back of your mind unattended for a few days, maybe a week. The first instinct most of us might have is to panic. This interferes with problem-solving, whether it’s conscious problem-solving or background problem-solving.

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    Once you return the problem to conscious thought, you may find you’ve got a good idea of how to prepare things in advance so that your move only takes a weekend (even though it’ll probably involve hiring a removalist and a cleaner!).

    No Manual Required, But it’s Not Easy

    This is such a simple concept. How is it that we miss the signs that we’re simply not ready to get started on the production phase of a project?

    I recently read somewhere that many Westerners confuse thirst for hunger because we’ve been trained to eat to solve all of our problems. I’m not vouching for the truth of that statement, but it’s a similar thing we’re talking about here. Western culture wants us busy all the time, producing, producing, producing. Unproductive workers are bad for the bottom line.

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    So, spending some time thinking is discouraged. We have to produce results NOW. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the mind doesn’t work that way. It needs to spend the time taking information in, and then it needs to be left alone to do the “pre-production” as we say in the music production world.

    Thus, it’s not easy to set a project aside and wait until it is ready to be tackled (whether that’s an hour away, a day, or more). That doesn’t make it difficult, but it’s not easy, either. Even as a guy who works from home and doesn’t have to keep up appearances looking like a busy bee in the office, I feel guilty when I put the production work off and let some information settle into the empty vortex at the back of my skull (back where my brain used to be).

    I can’t offer a quick way to help you feel less guilty about doing this, unfortunately, because this is a part of the way you see the world and that makes it a mental adjustment that takes time. It’s hard to get out of the negative feedback loop that the guilt of taking time to think causes while others think you’re just procrastinating. Persevere, stick with it, and when you’re estimating the time it’ll take to complete something, factor it in.

    I’m still getting to that guilt-free stage myself.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on March 31, 2020

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why We Procrastinate After All?

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    Is Procrastination Bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How Bad Procrastination Can Be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article: 8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

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    Procrastination, a Technical Failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Learn more about how to fix your procrastination problem here: What Is Procrastination and How to Stop It (The Complete Guide)

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

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