• Advice

How to procrastinate productively

Humans are wont to procrastinate, it’s just in our nature. We are easily distracted creatures and tend to put off things that we know will require a lot of energy and brain power. Freelancers often fall prey to the procrastination monster and given that they must be self-motivated, it can be a vicious cycle.

Productive procrastination may seem like a paradoxical phrase, however, it is real, it is great, and you probably already do it without even realizing it. It’s the procrastination that happens when instead of doing that looming work thing we need to do, we decide that we are finally going to get around to cleaning our bathtub (after all, we deserve a nice hot bath after the day we have had, right?).

The science behind procrastination

Given the endless list of tasks that one can procrastinate about, it’s a wonder anything gets done at all. But why do we procrastinate in the first place? One theory for procrastination is simply that doing the thing that needs done will be uncomfortable and unpleasant in one way or another. Therefore to avoid discomfort, we instinctively retreat into a pattern of behavior that is comforting through procrastination.

Others argue that procrastination stems from having poor time management and overestimating the amount of time you have to complete tasks. No matter what mechanisms are behind it, procrastination can have a profoundly negative impact on freelancers, time is money, so time should be spent wisely.

What is productive procrastination?

You can call it what you want, productive procrastination, structured procrastination, or my personal favorite, lateral procrastination. In the end they are all the same: turning a bad habit into a positive outcome. In an essay on this subject, Stanford Philosopher John Perry writes:

“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.”

--John Perry

You probably already do some form of this, like putting off important work tasks and instead doing the dishes or laundry. The desire to carry out house chores as an avoidance tactic is especially prevalent in freelancers who work from home. In the end, you are of course being somewhat productive, underpants will not wash themselves no matter how hard you will them to do so. However, outside of household and personal tasks, you can structure your day and your work tasks to make room for positive procrastination.

How can you harness positive procrastination and make it work for you?

Know thyself: If you know that you are the type of person that simply cannot work in a messy environment, with dishes in the sink, on an empty stomach, etc..., eliminate that hurdle in the beginning of your workday. Put yourself in the best possible environment to do work without the distraction of a looming chore.

Make a list: Often I find that not only does making a list fulfill a desire to avoid actually doing the things on my list, but it also puts brain to paper and allows me to organize my tasks and priorities more efficiently. Once those responsibilities have been written down, they seem less daunting, and far more manageable.

Be realistic with your priorities: Look at your list and make sure you know what has to be done and by when. Having “ASAP” as a deadline might seem to prioritize things higher, but often it creates a feeling of failure every time you realize that thing that needed to be done yesterday is still not done. Instead, set deadlines for yourself, dates and times, and know when you can rearrange those deadlines if something else should come up (or if you really just don’t feel like doing the task, and can afford not to).

Take a creativity break with a boring task: The mega-big-scary-to-do’s are not always the top priority. Much of the time they can be monotonous tasks that MUST be done, however, are going to suck really hard no matter what. I find that the best time to do these tasks are when I am completely squeezed of creative juice.

If I have something I need to write and I am coming up empty, that scanning and filing that needs to be done doesn’t seem like such a terrible chore - in fact, it’s relaxing.

Reward yourself: We all have those days where we are winning at life. You have knocked out 75% of your to-do list, you managed to run a few miles in the morning, AND you caught up on some personal emails with people you haven’t talked to in forever. You are a superhuman and you are riding high. Instead of trying to overexert yourself, stop, take a break, and just feel good about your accomplishments for the day. Too often we berate ourselves for failures and forget to congratulate ourselves for our accomplishments. As a freelancer, you get to be your own advocate, so remember to do that every now and again.

Rinse and repeat: As with all models of human efficiency, repetition and schedules are the key to happy, healthy, and productive people. Every day is a new day to be productive, so start it off right, reevaluate your list and priorities and don’t let the shortcomings of yesterday impede the things you can accomplish today.

Freelancers, how do you procrastinate productively?

Ashlee Christian is from the north-side of Chicago and will never stop saying "pop" or eating pizza with a fork and knife, so please stop trying to change her. Follow her on Twitter @nomadnation