Procrastination is not always a bad thing.
First of all, we’re not machines. We can’t just ceaselessly work until we drop, and spending time daydreaming and lolling about is good for both the soul and your overall productivity. A bit of procrastination can force you to take breaks and avoid burnout. It gives your creative brain some time to take over, and prevents you from becoming a totally humorless automaton.
The problem arises, however, when procrastination becomes its own kind of anxiety-provoking nightmare – when it actively, regularly hinders you from getting things done, and makes every aspect of your life more stressful. This kind of damaging habit leaves you racing to get projects done before deadlines, and will overwhelm you and leave you in your pajamas all day long, staring blankly at a television screen and hating yourself for not being productive. I have been there, my friends!
The truth is, some procrastination is inevitable. The key is to use it in a positive way, and make it work for you.
Positive productive procrastination
Maybe you can’t force yourself to do your work, right this second. That’s okay! This time, don’t beat yourself up and fight the procrastination impulse. Instead, channel that energy. Procrastinate by getting other things done.
Do you have another project you need to work on? Do you have errands you need to run? Can you take this time to fit some exercise in? There’s almost always something to clean or organize, isn’t there, Martha Stewart?
You can also use this “bonus” procrastination time to educate yourself. Do you have a book you’ve meant to read, or a skill you’re developing? Take an hour or two to stimulate your brain – it all still counts as productivity.
Get one or two productive tasks out of the way first. You’ll still be honoring your impulse to avoid the work at hand, but you won’t be squandering your time watching Netflix and whining anxiously over your tortilla chips.
Procrastination as planning
Another way to channel that itchy I-don’t-wanna-do-it feeling is by using your procrastination period to plan your project. Outline your ideas. Figure out your goals and structure. Outlining structure actually gives you more freedom. When you know where you’re going, you don’t always have to start at the often-intimidating beginning. Sometimes, you can start in the middle of your project’s workflow and work your way backwards.
Planning can help you feel like you’re making progress, even if you haven’t technically started yet. It might even inspire you to begin working in earnest.
Procrastination as prioritization
I don’t know about y’all, but I’m a rebellious sort. The minute I tell myself “I CANNOT PROCRASTINATE,” all I want to do is… procrastinate.
Rather than blindly fighting that impulse, I indulge my bratty reaction by making a master list of things I have to do, including minutiae like “wash the dishes” and “email Bob back.” I then cross out every task I am allowed to hold off on. This serves as a de facto prioritization, and still allows me to gleefully push back on an overwhelming workload.
Often, this small act of saying “whatever, I’ll do it later” to minor tasks helps me to grit my teeth and get my primary work done. After all, I’ve gotten to avoid so many other annoying chores!
Negative productive procrastination
This is an extreme measure, to be utilized when you are in full-on inner tantrum mode – when you just cannot make yourself work on the project, and the deadline is looming.
Make a deal with yourself: you can either work on project X… or you have to get another really annoying, onerous task done – the kind you’ve been putting off forever. You must do one of these things.
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This tactic builds in extra consequences for procrastination, while still technically giving you a choice. It only works, however, if you pick a task you really, really dread: getting your overdue taxes done? Calling your obnoxious, vaguely bigoted Great-Aunt Edna? Figuring out what’s making that squeaking, rustling sound beneath your sink? I don’t know what your boogeyman errand is, but I bet you do.
Given the choice between doing the work you’ve been avoiding and the Monster Task, I think I know what you’ll choose. But again… it’s technically your call!
Procrastination sinks its sloth-like claws in all of us, sometimes; there is no escape from a little dilly-dallying (indeed, it’s a refreshingly human trait). But if it’s really posing a consistent problem in your work and life, try these tricks. Odds are, you’ll suffer less “wasted” time, and your to-do list will look all the more approachable.
Kate Hamill lives and works in New York City, where she consumes an inordinate amount of Sriracha daily. You can catch up with her on Twitter at @katerone.