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5 Times Procrastinating Can Make You More Productive

5 Times Procrastinating Can Make You More Productive
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Procrastination. From the moment we hear that five-syllable word, we learn it’s a bad thing. (This is possibly because the first time we hear it, it’s been levelled at us by a frustrated-yet-well-meaning parent or teacher seeking only to help us achieve our “full potential”). Procrastinating, we learn, is a guilty habit we all hope to break ourselves of – it’s something lazy people do and high achievers don’t. There is a ton of advice on how we can stop procrastinating.

But it’s hard to kick the habit when there seem to be endless incidents of procrastination waiting to happen: in school or work (why do they give 4 weeks for a project I can get done in a night if they don’t expect me to do it the night before?!) and life (doing my taxes early is really just a waste of time). So, we procrastinate doing out taxes and that big project. And then we chastise ourselves for lack of discipline. But wait – is this bad reputation really deserved? Is it true you’ll never be super productive (and reach your full potential!) until we fix this?

Procrastination ain’t so bad.

First, take some small comfort in the fact that human beings are hardwired to procrastinate. In part it’s because we have a tough time reconciling immediate wants with long-term shoulds. So we discount the future, big time – we overestimate how good it will feel to play video games and sit on the couch now, and underestimate how bad it will feel to put a rush order on that project 2 days from now.

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But it turns out there are some times procrastination can actually be an important signal – or a good strategy in itself.

So what should you do when thinking about starting a task incites an internal chorus of “I don’t wannaaaaa’s!!!” your three year old niece would be proud of? Or makes that garage you’ve been meaning to clean out look like a shiny nugget of opportunity by comparison?

1. Tune into your inner wisdom when you feel yourself procrastinate.

Is there are reason you’re putting off this task? Are you not sure it’s a good idea, like taking a big holiday with a new sig other, or starting a project you’re uncomfortable with? Sometimes this can be a signal. Listen to your gut. Start by going over why you thought the holiday was a good idea, or reviewing the plan for the project in detail. Make sure there aren’t any gaps that could be setting off your alarm bells.

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2. Are you procrastinating when making a big decision?

Research shows we make better decisions when we take the max time to make them. (Check out the popular book Wait for lots more good stuff on this topic). Stop. Process. Time and pain down the road can often be saved by investing more time upfront when making a decision.

3. Figure out how much time the task actually needs, sans procrastinating.

Work expands to fit the time you give it. Procrastination can keep tasks from taking more time they need. Some things may require creativity and artistry, while others just need to get done to a satisfactory level. Never start a task without giving yourself a time limit – even something you’ve never done before. Apps like Time 50 Best’s the Email Game are built entirely on this principle. Procrastinating can ‘help’ by resulting in a binding deadline which forcibly prevents you from wallowing on a particular item. It’s astounding how quickly your taxes get done at 11:45 pm on the last day…

So that’s great, but what does it mean for your procrastinating self? When is it safe – or even good – to put things off?

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Here are five times you can procrastinate and still come out on top.

1. When there are few variables.

Such as when there aren’t other people or missing information that might derail your ability to do things later under a time crunch. If the task just relies on you, and it’s something you’ve done before or know how long it will take, you’re probably good to go.

2. When you aren’t letting others down by being last minute.

Procrastinating can be destructive when it means you’re hurting your personal or professional reputation by causing others inconvenience, or worse. Throwing a wrench in other peoples’ plans is not good for your relationships. So going to the gym in the evening vs the morning because you didn’t feel like getting up early enough – not a big deal. Putting off revising a draft that the marketing team is waiting for – not a good idea.

3. When there’s a clear “good enough” hurdle.

Lots of tasks need to just get done with competence, rather than brilliance. Your taxes aren’t a work of great literary fiction (or they shouldn’t be!). Sometimes ‘just good enough’ really is good enough.

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4. When it’s a signal that something isn’t right.

Sometimes we postpone because we sense our plan isn’t the greatest, or we really haven’t bought into the outcome. Putting off training for a half-marathon is a lot harder if you’re truly excited about the idea of it, and it’s meaningful to you. If you really don’t like running and only signed up because friends did, then maybe it’s not a great use of (many, many, many!) hours of your time.

5. When you have the time.

If you’re stuck getting started, a creative solution will be right around the corner. Assuming you don’t need to finish the task immediately, let things percolate for a few hours or days. Better yet, do something that will help move your brain in the right direction – like listening to great music, or reading something inspiring.

All of these are legitimate times to procrastinate. But…the key to procrastinating productively: use the time to do something BETTER. Catching up on Game of Thrones will not improve your personal or professional life substantively (I hear you protesting. I’m right on this one, trust me.). Please, PLEASE use your putting off time for good. Like spending with your family or friends. Or working out. Or enhancing your skills. Super productive Stanford prof John Perry credits his success to ‘active procrastination’ – doing other important things you’d need to do anyway while putting off one particular task.

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With that, happy procrastinating. (But if what you’re stalling is important, and you have clear direction, and will hurt you later if you don’t do it now? Then suck it up, grab a coffee and get started already!)

Featured photo credit: Sarangib via pixabay.com

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

More on Building Habits

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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