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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.

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    Last Updated on September 10, 2019

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization

    Do you know that prioritization is an art? It is an art that will lead you to success in whatever area that matters to you.

    By prioritization, I’m not talking so much about assigning tasks, but deciding which will take chronological priority in your day—figuring out which tasks you’ll do first, and which you’ll leave to last.

    Effective Prioritization

    There are two approaches to “prioritizing” the tasks in your to-do list that I see fairly often:

    Approach #1 Tackling the Biggest Tasks First and Getting Them out of the Way

    The idea is that by tackling them first, you deal with the pressure and anxiety that builds up and prevents you from getting anything done—whether we’re talking about big or small tasks. Leo Babauta is a proponent of this Big Rocks method.[1]

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    Approach #2 Tackling the Tasks You Can Get Done Quickly and Easily, with Minimal Effort

    Proponents of this method believe that by tackling the small fries first, you’ll have less noise distracting you from the periphery of your consciousness.

    If you believe in getting your email read and responded to, making phone calls and getting Google Reader zeroed before you dive into the high-yield work, you’re a proponent of this method. I suppose you could say Getting Things Done (GTD) encourages this sort of method, since the methodology advises followers to tackle tasks that can be completed within two minutes, right there and then.

    Figure out Your Approach for Prioritization

    My own approach is perhaps a mixture of the two.

    I’ll write out my daily task list and draw little priority stars next to the three items I need to get done that day. They don’t need to be big tasks, but nine times out of ten, they are.

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    Smaller tasks are rarely important enough to warrant a star in the first place; I can always get away without even checking my inbox until the next day if I’m swamped, and the people who need to get in touch with me super quickly know how.

    But I’m not recommending my system of prioritization to you. I’m also not saying that mine is better than Leo’s Big Rocks method, and I’m not saying it’s better than the “if it can be done quickly, do it first” method either.

    The thing with prioritization is that knowing when to do what relies very much on you and the way you work. Some people need to get some small work done to find a sense of accomplishment and clarity that allows them to focus on and tackle bigger items. Others need to deal with the big tasks or they’ll get caught up in the busywork of the day and never move on, especially when that Google Reader count just refuses to get zeroed (personally, I recommend the Mark All As Read button—I use it most days!).

    I’m in between, because my own patterns can be all over the place. Some days I will be ready to rip into massive projects at 7AM. Other times I’ll feel the need to zero every inbox I have and clean up the papers on my desk before I can focus on anything serious. I also know that my peak, efficient working time doesn’t come at 11AM or 3PM or some specific time like it does for many people, but I have several peaks divided by a few troughs. I can feel what’s coming on when and try to keep my schedule liquid enough that I can adapt.

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    That’s why I use a starred task list system rather than a scheduled task list. It allows me to trust myself (something that I suppose takes a certain amount of discipline) and achieve peak efficiency by blowing with the winds. If I fight the peaks and troughs, I’ll get less done; but if I do certain kinds of work in each period of the day as they come, I’ll get more done than most others in a similar line of work.

    You may not be able to trust yourself to that extent without falling into the busywork trap. You may not be able to tackle big tasks first thing in the morning without feeling like you’re pushing against an invisible brick wall that won’t budge. You might not be able to deal with small tasks before the big tasks without feeling pangs of guilt and urgency.

    My point is:

    The prioritization systems themselves don’t matter. They’re all pretty good for a group of people, not least of all to the people who espouse them because they use them and find them effective.

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    What matters is that you don’t fall for one set of dogma (and I’m not saying Leo Babauta or David Allen preach these things as dogma, but sometimes their proponents do) until you’ve tried the systems extensively, and found which method of chronological prioritization works for you.

    And if the system you already use works great, then there’s no need to bother trying others—in the world of personal productivity, it’s too easy to mess with something that works and find yourself unable to get back into your former groove.

    “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

    In truth, this principle applies to all sorts of personal productivity issues, though it’s important to know which issues it applies to.

    If you thought multitasking worked well for you each day and I’d have to contend that you are wrong—multitasking is a universal myth in my books! But if you find yourself prioritizing tasks that never get done, you might need to reconsider which of the above approaches you’re using and change to a system that is more personally effective.

    More About Prioritization & Time Management

    Featured photo credit: Sabri Tuzcu via unsplash.com

    Reference

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