How to make procrastination productive
Everybody procrastinates, whether or not we’re willing to admit it. The trick is to procrastinate by getting something else done.
This is a skill I picked up when I started practicing David Allen’s Getting Things Done productivity system—which I first discovered on Lifehacker, 10 years ago.
Allen suggests creating a specific list of low-energy, low-brainpower tasks you can complete when you don’t feel like doing anything else. Maybe it’s time to clear a bunch of files and papers off your desktop (either physical or virtual). Maybe it’s time to go through your email inbox and unsubscribe to all of those newsletters and marketing emails you no longer want to receive—and if you’re going to do that, make the task even easier by searching your email for the word “unsubscribe” and then going down the list of whatever you find.
Why do you need a list of low-brainpower tasks? Because we all need something to do while we put off the rest of our work.
The truth is that most of us don’t procrastinate because we’re “lazy” or “unmotivated.” We avoid certain types of tasks for three big reasons:
- We’re not sure how to begin the task/we’re anxious about beginning the task
- There’s not enough time to get into the task before our next meeting/appointment/etc.
- We’ve just completed a session of difficult task work and we need a break
For decades, psychological research has been able to explain procrastination as a functioning problem, not a consequence of laziness. When a person fails to begin a project that they care about, it’s typically due to either a) anxiety about their attempts not being “good enough” or b) confusion about what the first steps of the task are. Not laziness. In fact, procrastination is more likely when the task is meaningful and the individual cares about doing it well.
So we’ve got a meaningful chunk of work to complete, and we care about doing it well. But we can’t do it right now, for any of the reasons listed above. Which means we scroll social media or read articles (like this one) or decide it’s finally time to tackle that gross sticky residue that’s been on the corner of our desk for who even knows how long.
Which is fine. In fact, doing these types of “mindless” activities can help us when it’s time to come back to the task at hand—as anyone who’s had a mental breakthrough in the shower, on a walk, or while folding laundry can attest.
Of course, few of us can take showers or fold laundry in the middle of the workday. But we can, as Justin Pot writes in Fast Company, find plenty of mindless-but-productive procrastination options in our own offices:
You could organize your desk for a bit. Or you could head to the break room and do everyone’s dishes that they inevitably left there because apparently no one knows how to wash a dish. Your coworkers will think you’re a kind and generous person who did something nice just for them. Only you and I will know that you did it just to avoid work for a while. Don’t worry: I won’t tell anyone.
Other suggestions on Pot’s list include breaking the work you’re procrastinating on into manageable chunks—“Breaking it down into small tasks and adding those to your to-do list isn’t exactly fun, but it’s less overwhelming than working.”—and taking a few minutes to chat with a coworker. (Remember, these types of low-stakes, positive connections can seriously improve our satisfaction with life.)
Pot also suggests David Allen’s strategy of having a go-to list of non-urgent, non-difficult to-dos whenever your brain needs time to rest—and since creating that kind of a list is an excellent non-urgent, non-difficult item, you can start there the next time you feel the urge to procrastinate.