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5 Times Procrastinating Can Make You More Productive

5 Times Procrastinating Can Make You More Productive

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.

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 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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