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How to Procrastinate Productively

How to Procrastinate Productively

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    There’s a popular quote floating around productivity circles that says, “eat a live toad in the morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” Many people apply this to getting things done, saying that if you tackle your most difficult and overbearing task first, nothing else will seem so difficult.

    I disagree. The way I see it, the thought of having to eat a live toad is going to make me do anything and everything to put off eating the toad. The simple fact of having this overbearing, weighty task on my list makes me get all the smaller, easier, necessary things done – all to avoid having to do the one feared task.

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    Understanding this about my work habits, I’ve been able to procrastinate effectively and usefully, using the worst to get the rest done. If you’re not the “wake and eat a toad” type either, here’s how to use your live toad to get things done.

    First, start by making a list of all the things you want to get done. Include things you need to get done, but go bigger: we’re shooting for some epic procrastinating, and that’s time-consuming. All the things you’ve been meaning to do, no matter how large or small, go on your list. As you’re making the list, put the most difficult tasks at the top, and the simplest at the bottom. Your workflow goes backwards, from the bottom of the list to the top (remember – we’re not working, we’re procrastinating).

    Now we’re ready: not to work, but to procrastinate. The best way to start, I’ve found, is to leave. Maybe you’ve got errands to run, or maybe you’re just hungry; either way, get out and go somewhere else. Being out will compel you to start crossing the errands off your list, all without doing what you don’t want to be doing.

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    Once you’re done with your errands, do all the mindless tasks you’ve been meaning to do. A quick procrastination tip: keep a “Mindless” list, full of things you want to do that don’t require any brainpower whatsoever. My list currently has things like “Upload YouTube videos,” “backup HD,” “delete empty folders,” and “clean room.” Anything you’d like to do that doesn’t require your brain goes on the list. Feel free to flip on the TV or listen to music while you’re doing these tasks. You’re getting stuff done, sure, but the TV’s on! That can’t be called work.

    Next comes the purging. Read things you’ve been meaning to, empty inboxes, throw stuff away, clean your room (cleaning is great for procrastinating usefully), and generally get all the junk out of your space. But that’s reading, watching, and cleaning, so you’re definitely not working yet.

    After you’re done with all that, you might get to some tasks that actually require a bit of your time. For me, that’s things like writing blog posts, paying bills, writing papers, or catching up on phone calls – but I don’t mind, because I’m still not writing that scary paper, or whatever scary task lies ahead.

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    Those done, you might realize your list only has one task left on it: that live toad, the one task you can’t wait to not do. Don’t worry, you’re still not going to do it. This is your break time – go do nothing. Sit, and maybe let your thoughts wander onto just exactly how you’re going to eat that live toad. Don’t dwell too much, just take a few minutes to make a plan in your head. Even though you’re thinking about it, you’re still not eating the live toad- this certainly can’t be called work.

    Break over, go take a look at the toad – the big, hairy task you don’t want to undertake. Maybe take a tiny bite. Get slightly into the task- maybe writing the first sentence or paragraph. Once you’ve started, odds are continuing on won’t seem so bad – if it does, though, step back out, take another break, and then wade back in. You’ll quickly get going, and eating the toad will be over before you know it.

    Procrastination is very much a comparative tool – your brain says that “instead of this, I’d rather do that.” Even if there’s much left to do, by pitting it against the worst task, everything else becomes somehow more appealing. Procrastination doesn’t have to be a bad thing; instead, it can actually be your ticket to even greater productivity.

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    Just make sure you do eat that toad eventually.

    Photo: Just Us 3

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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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