How to Overcome Procrastination by Embracing It
Are we all drinking the Kool-Aid by subscribing to the belief that fast paced days with jam-packed schedules is representative of a life worth living? Here's how to slow down, and accept procrastination for the powerful productivity tool it really is.
If I'm to be candid, I actually don't understand why procrastination has such a negative connotation.
We tend to believe that anyone who isn't constantly doing something at all times is a slacker. We're suspicious of the person who isn't ticking off checklists throughout the day.
But there are times when we simply need to exercise our right to be still, checkout, daydream, doodle, or whatever it is we do when our body and mind needs a break.
The purpose of this guide is to help embrace procrastination because putting off work is not as bad as it seems. In fact, it’s a necessity for optimal performance.
First, I’ll make the case for stalling with compelling research-backed arguments. Then, I’ll introduce the concept of structured procrastination — including ways of getting things done by turning our propensity for delay into a productivity tool.
- The mind needs to take breaks
- There are benefits to idleness
- Mood influences our creativity
- Distinguish good from bad procrastination
- Master the art (and science) of waiting
The Case for Stalling
Failing to do something shouldn’t automatically be equated with laziness. Instead, understand why the mind sabotages your work ethic, so you can figure out how to give it what it needs to support, not derail, your efforts.
The mind needs to take breaks
Our brains are capable machines, but the constant influx of information we’re forced to process in our modern lives leads to overload and overwhelm.
In “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime”, Scientific America shares research that suggests the brain reaches a breaking point after which it can no longer deal with this cerebral congestion.
Mental breaks may seem like periods of do-nothingness, but the mind is far from inactive. These moments of downtime allow us to make sense of all the information we’ve consumed.
In order to optimize productivity, we regularly need to distance ourselves from the task at hand. Not only does this replenish our mental resources and energy levels, it also sharpens our concentration and cognitive abilities.
For advice on how long your breaks should be, read Fast Company's article "This Is How Many Minutes Of Breaks You Need Each Day"
There are benefits to idleness
Busier is not always better. And, extended focus on the same thing hinders us from performing at our peak.
In “Your Brain Unplugged: Proof That Spacing Out Makes You More Effective”, Forbes summarizes research that proves the benefits of unplugging.
Some of the benefits include: better problem solving and more aha moments, increased feelings of social and emotional well-being, stress management and less adverse effects on our cardiovascular health.
What’s most important is that leisure time is not a nice-to-have but a must-have. It is essential that we relax and recharge.
Researchers advise that, just like with sleep, we can build up an idleness deficit if we aren’t mindful. That deficit could damage our brains and lead to a host of physical and psychological problems.
Mood influences our creativity
If nothing else compels you to embrace procrastination, then this connection will: mood impacts our cognitive abilities.
As Big Think reports in “How Your Mood Affects Your Creativity,” we should be sensitive to how our emotional state changes throughout the day.
In some contexts the “depressed artist” cliche may be true, but generally speaking there’s a more robust body of research that supports the link between positive mood and creative insight.
Forcing ourselves to do work when we are in a negative state — distracted, uninspired, agitated, and so on — doesn’t help. Why? It all goes back to the power of the mind at ease.
In “Schedule a 15-Minute Break Before You Burn Out”, HBR confirms this:
Studies show that sporadic breaks replenish our energy, improve self-control and decision-making, and fuel productivity. Depending on how we spend them, breaks can also heighten our attention and make us more creative.
So now that we’ve presented a case for relishing in moments of downtime, let’s discuss how to flip procrastination on its head and turn it into our most powerful productivity tool.
Allow me to introduce the concept of structured procrastination by providing an explanation from its creator: Stanford professor John Perry and author of The Art of Procrastination:
The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it.
Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it.
However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important. Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact.
The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list.
With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.
If we link professor Perry’s concept to what we’ve learned so far about the brain’s desire to take breaks, we can see that the mind deals with resistance to downtime by tricking us into doing what appears to be less taxing.
So even if we refuse to take a break, the mind has the upper hand in-so-much as it compels us to skip over the most important (and mentally draining) items on our checklists.
Now that we know that the brain needs downtime and that it will still win via deception if we refuse to take breaks, let’s see how we can make this work in our favor.
Distinguish good from bad procrastination
Paul Graham in “Good and Bad Procrastination” nicely sums up the necessary mind shift:
There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you're not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.
In order to procrastinate well we need to differentiate good from bad procrastination and, as professor Perry advises, structure our workloads in a way that important things still get done.
Let’s define “bad” procrastination as doing the least important things (like trolling on the internet) and “good” procrastination as avoiding the least important things to do the most important.
It’s clear that procrastination is a given, but in order to prevent slipping into a state of bad procrastination here’s an idea on how to structure your day:
- Start the day with a clear sense of priorities: use the Eisenhower box to help eliminate non-essential tasks from your list.
- Do the most important work first, at the beginning of the day if possible, as that’s when you’re mentally fresh.
- As you wear down, transition from the top priority items into other important items on your list (to ease the mental burden).
- Remember to take breaks (no, you can’t avoid this) as the more worn out you become the more your brain will trick you into doing less and less useful things.
Master the art (and science) of waiting
The strategy above helps with the organization of tasks, but in addition to tasks we are often overwhelmed with decisions.
Even if you have a beautifully laid out plan for the day, your tasks may require some level of choice in terms of how you resolve them. Or you may be hit unexpectedly with new assignments or other commitments and have to decide how to tackle them.
So how in the world do we handle all of the decisions and choices that we’re bombarded with daily — both in and outside of a work context?
If you’ve had a situation where there were so many options that you got overwhelmed and decided not to choose, you’ve experienced what Psychologist and Professor Barry Schwartz calls the Paradox of Choice:
Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, though modern Americans have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don't seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.
In addition to hyper-focusing on tasks, the brain also becomes exhausted by having to deliberate too many choices. And, once again, it will have the upper-hand by inducing procrastination so our mental resources aren’t drained.
Though his research is focused on consumerism, the takeaway is clear and applicable to other areas of our lives: simplify the equation by reducing the range of possibilities.
I discuss how I personally approach this in “What Matters To You Most”. Because I gained awareness, clarity, and focus, by going through a simple soul-searching strategy, I developed an incredible ability to simplify decision-making in most areas of life.
It doesn’t matter if it’s deciding what you are going to wear or figuring out what you want to do for a living, big and small decisions will present an on-going challenge if you don’t have an overarching vision and set of values to guide you.
But there’s more to the decision conundrum then eliminating possibilities. There’s also the issue of when to decide — and according to professor Frank Partnoy you should wait until the last possible moment.
Historically, for human beings, procrastination has not been regarded as a bad thing. The Greeks and Romans generally regarded procrastination very highly. The wisest leaders embraced procrastination and would basically sit around and think and not do anything unless they absolutely had to.
The idea that procrastination is bad really started in the Puritanical era with Jonathan Edwards’s sermon against procrastination and then the American embrace of “a stitch in time saves nine,” and this sort of work ethic that required immediate and diligent action.
But if you look at recent studies, managing delay is an important tool for human beings. People are more successful and happier when they manage delay. Procrastination is just a universal state of being for humans. We will always have more things to do than we can possibly do, so we will always be imposing some sort of unwarranted delay on some tasks. The question is not whether we are procrastinating, it is whether we are procrastinating well.
Once again embracing procrastination so long as it’s done well seems to be key. But, how does delaying certain decisions play into this?
When we are forced to take a decision at the last minute we’re put in a position to trust our gut. This is less draining because the brain doesn’t have to mull over too much new information, but only has to tap into the subconscious to help make the decision.
You can consider the subconscious to be a permanent repository of everything that has ever happened to you. It retrieves memories to help you navigate life — which is largely centered around making decisions.
Gut decisions and quick choices don’t always lead to the best possible outcome, but neither do our more calculated, conscious processes (especially when we’re mentally exhausted).
Relying a bit more on our intuition for some decision-making can help us get unstuck, particularly when our conscious mind is at a standstill.
So, let’s recap the above with a process for managing choice and making decisions:
- Understand what matters most to you and have a clear personal vision so you’re always guided by awareness, clarity, and focus.
- Reduce the range of possibilities by asking “does this matter” (for both small and large decisions).
- If necessary, wait to make certain decisions and be open to trusting your intuition.
So no, you can't give the middle finger to everything in your life — but when you have a strong resistance towards doing it's a very clear sign that you should just try being.
Procrastination is not necessarily a lazy habit you need to fix, but a signal from your brain that it's time to relinquish conscious control before you burn out.