Work Smart: How to Make Procrastination Productive

Procrastination

You've got a big, important report to write for work and you're dreading it. The deadline has been weighing on your mind for weeks and so far, you've done nothing about it. At this point, you'd rather get a root canal than get started. Still, you set aside time this afternoon to buckle down and get to work, but instead you're playing Solitaire, you're checking Facebook, you're reorganizing your pens, you're chain-smoking on the fire escape, and you're feeling like crap. You're procrastinating.

Procrastination is a huge productivity problem with no obvious solution: everybody does it, and no matter how smart and efficient you work, you're always going to do it in some capacity too. The only thing you can do is choose to get SOME thing done, even if it's not THE thing you're putting off.

Just because you're procrastinating doesn't mean you're being lazy or wasting time. In fact, procrastination actually CREATES motivation and time: when you're procrastinating, you're highly motivated to avoid a certain activity for as long as possible. Channel that time and energy into something worthwhile and procrastinate productively.

Stanford professor John Perry calls this "structured procrastination." Your to-do list usually has a certain structure: urgent stuff at the very top, and less urgent but still worthwhile stuff at the bottom. When you procrastinate productively, you knock out worthwhile tasks while you put off the urgent ones.

For example, when faced with a stack of papers to grade, Perry would hang out in the student lounge. He did that so much he gained a reputation of being one of the friendliest and most accessible professors at the university.

When I was working on my book, I got a whole lot done while I avoided writing. My closets were cleaned out, my bookshelves were alphabetized, my kitchen was sparkling clean: because I was willing to do anything OTHER than write the next chapter.

When you're procrastinating, in comparison to the dreadful thing you can't bring yourself to do, everything else seems like a piece of cake. Take advantage of that. While you put off doing those slides this afternoon, instead of playing Solitaire or checking Facebook, do SOMEthing worthwhile. Clean off your desk, write that thank you note, empty your email inbox, or brainstorm a new project. You'll still feel bad about not getting your slides done, but at least you'll be able to say you got SOMEthing done.

Procrastination doesn't have to equal paralysis. Some of the most motivated people you know just might be putting something off.

Gina Trapani is the author of Upgrade Your Life and founding editor of Lifehacker.com. Work Smart appears every week on FastCompany.com.

Last week: Three Ways to Use Google Wave in Your Business

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16 Comments

  • Gregory Haralson

    Greg Haralson, aliso viejo, ca; too much patience is procrastination

  • FF Architect

    There might be an argument on the "procrastination isn't some degree of laziness" issue. That's not to say there is not some degree in laziness in most people -- but it is a form of laziness.

    The Architect
    Fame Foundry
    http://www.famefoundry.com

  • chris kr

    I have this habit.. always procrastinates and ends up doing everything together in a rush. Sometimes I miss out the important stuff in my life.
    Thanks for providing such a inspirational article. I will be using these tips..sure!
    --
    Plant Pages

  • Stephanie Burns

    Is it weird that I didn't even read this until 12 hours later? I clicked on it and it stayed in my browser tabs until just now... Talk about being distracted.

    Great Article.

  • Ryan Tjahaja

    Doing something on a to do list, no matter how low on the priority list, is not true procrastination. Once you deem something as something you should do, it automatically becomes something that you are then capable of procrastinating from.

  • tom funk

    This is a great piece. I feel like I've been given some permission to procrastinate and some practical ideas for at getting SOME productivity out of procrastination. Still, I'm struck by how long I'll put off the most important tasks -- the more important something is, the better job I want to do on it, the less likely I am to dash it off, so the longer I procrastinate!

  • Ken Thompson

    This is a chronic condition that I have suffered with my entire life. My solution has been complete the task I least like as my first task of the day. Then I can move on wasting time on things I enjoy.

  • John Lapolla

    The irony is, I'm reading this as I am procrastinating writing a proposal!

    I've found that sometimes it just helps to do some creative things, knock some small items off my TTD list, and build to a higher energy level. And then sometimes I just need to really feel the pressure of a deadline!

    Thanks for the tought provoking delay....

    --
    jlapolla

  • Brandon Gerena

    Procrastinators unite! Short story + video on "structured procrastination". Bravo!

  • Gary Sanchez

    Post to Profile
    To:
    ^_^
    Message:
    I can use this to justify procrastination? If I don't get a project done, I can just explain that I optimized the performance of my computer, cleaned up after myself in the kitchen, pruned the apricot tree, composted the kitchen waste, etc? I don't think my clients will let me off the hook for handling procrastination in this way. Yet, there is a certain attraction to this method. I could write an article that other procrastinators will read and we'll all feel better.

  • Tinu Abayomi-Paul

    Subtle and brilliant use of procrastination. I wonder if it works in reverse... instead of writing a dreaded sales letter, I could be writing another chapter of my book...

  • Atle Iversen

    Hehe...the amount of work we're willing to do to *avoid* work is amazing ;-)

    Nice reminder to keep a separate "Other stuff" list in addition to the To-Do list

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