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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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