I Procrastinated For A Week And Accomplished An Astonishing Amount Of Work

Conventional wisdom is that procrastination is a "bad" habit that we should try to eliminate at all costs. But what if we embraced putting things off?

I procrastinated for a week and I accomplished an astonishing amount.

Really.

Last week I took a full five days to conduct a little experiment based on embracing procrastination. I didn’t blow any deadlines. I didn’t have to pull any all nighters.

Instead, I eschewed all of the conventional wisdom on how to stop stalling and start doing. I backburnered all manner of things until after the last possible second. I lost focus (sporadically) and stared off into space, I stepped completely away from the office (not just at lunch), I read, I made personal telephone calls, I tweeted, I tumbld, I even found out which House of Cards character I am (Jackie Sharp--thanks BuzzFeed!).

After 40 hours of a regular work week I made two startling discoveries:

  1. I actually get more work done after I stall.
  2. Putting things off is harder than I thought.

I’m not alone in the first discovery. Authors Frank Partnoy and John Perry have written two whole books based on the productivity of procrastination. Structuring time and finding other smaller tasks to do while lollygagging on a larger project you should be completing is nothing more than “active procrastination,” they say, a state where things are still getting done. The authors also agree that loosely gliding from one seemingly mindless web surf to the next idle moment (all while squelching angst-ridden moments of wondering how it all will get done) is merely lazy.

The latter is where I beg to differ. More on that in the points below.

First, some background. I work primarily from my home office, so to equalize things with office denizens for this experiment, when I found myself wanting distractions I didn’t watch TV, hit up the laundry, or do any other household chores you couldn’t access from a cubicle. I also made sure my workload was average for that week, in other words, not so crushing that the commitments would necessitate total focus and productivity.

Here’s what I learned:

1. Putting off the siren call of the mobile phone works wonders for reducing anxiety.

I was never a fan of reading and responding to texts, emails, Twitter, et. al., after hours. I live with a spouse and children, and we all prefer face time to screen time during dinner and beyond. As a reporter, though, it’s challenging to step away from the device at night. So I’d always make up for it in the morning, grabbing it upon waking (which I normally do without an alarm around 6:30 p.m.) and starting my work day before my feet hit the floor. Not this week.

I put off even glancing at the phone until after I’d washed up, dressed (I always wear work attire, regardless of what’s on my agenda) and had breakfast.

The takeaway: A much calmer entry into the day translated to tackling email more deliberately later. Putting off the task helped me get to zero unread messages in a more concentrated period of time without distractions. The usual method of bouncing back and forth between the inbox and a stalled out sentence can take a 23-minute bite out of focus.

2. Helping others doesn’t suck that much time or use up creative energy.

No matter when I dive into my inbox on any given day, I invariably have a heap of requests ranging from the modest fact check to more involved inquiries to assist with long-range projects or brainstorming. Web chats are also a channel for requests throughout the day.

Ordinarily, if I’m writing on deadline, these interruptions provoke an internal pause to reflect on how I can do this and still accomplish all that’s required of me. I would often start a response, then get pulled back by the need to finish the task I abandoned, my focus reduced to the blurry track of a pinball as it ricochets around the board.

During procrastination week, I changed the game. I stopped what I was doing and cheerfully responded to one and all, taking the time to let a few friends and colleagues pick my brain.

The takeaway: Spending 10 minutes to help someone push past a plateau can be just as effective to jumpstart your own motivation. Also, science says helping others at work makes you happier.

3. Getting lost in a labyrinth of lollygagging can be inspiring.

As luck would have it, that week’s leadership posts held a wealth of perspectives on how to court the muse of productivity by harnessing the power of daydreaming and the imagination, by finding inspiration everywhere. Not willing to let my mind be a lazy piece of meat or worse, one that had been pummeled into predictable patterns of thinking, I let it alternate between drifting off and doing something completely unrelated.

For the drifting, I tried the fast track to mindfulness recommended by Christine Comaford as well as the Headspace app for a 10-minute guided meditation. I climbed a tree at lunch and also read parts of Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn which is partly a memoir and mostly an enthusiastic guide to the mysteries of physics (my absolute worst subject in school).

The takeaway: Each of these little pauses reset my thinking in short order, making it easier to take on the next task and work to completion. It's also a great stress buster.

4. Hanging back from social media but continuing to be social helps boost your mood.

Having a project to turn in or a presentation looming can induce plenty of internal dialogue of the not-terribly-helpful sort. Some psychologists speculate that people--writers in particular--are paralyzed by the anxiety that they’ll turn in mediocre work.

I’m not one of those writers, but I'll admit to the occasional dip into a cycle of reading others’ work and wishing mine was more like theirs. Though many Fast Company readers told me that they take to their social media feeds when they’re putting off a task, I found that it’s all too easy to get bogged down in the comparison game which defeats the purpose of procrastinating for fun.

The takeaway: I tried watching uplifting videos or taking a silly quiz instead and discovered that I didn’t need more than a couple before I was smiling and more ready to move on to the next thing.

5. Reading unrelated material teaches important lessons.

In addition to reading that book during my lunch breaks, I took time throughout the days I did the experiment to really dig into some longer news articles and essays. This is where things got tough. I realized that when I did this on a “normal” day, I tend to bounce from a piece part way through. Call it being seized with the realization that time was ticking and deadlines needed to be met. Call it web-induced attention deficit. This time, I vowed to stick with each story through to the end. Monotasking, after all, is the new multitasking.

The takeaway: Happily, my attention span extended to fit my newly found leisurely pace. I did notice though that I had less patience for an article so laden with clever turns of phrase it was as though the writer was procrastinating all the way to getting to the point. A lesson in brevity for me to pay forward.

6. Permission to slack a little actually works to boost productivity.

Part of why procrastination is such a tricky subject is because it is a guilt-inducing pursuit. No matter how you slice it, if you are doing something else at the expense of the item you should be doing, the perception is that somehow you're not working to capacity.

This week, I was able to flip that assumption on its head. I had permission to sit back and see how things unfolded. The ability to exhale into taking five extra minutes to watch a YouTube video or take a quiz on procrastination was just the mental boost I needed to stop postponing and start doing what I needed to do.

The takeaway: Throughout the experiment I continually found myself drifting back into work mode. I’d watch a video then finish a piece, or look at Pinterest boards for 10 minutes before refining a pitch. Each time I went down the rabbit hole with impunity, I popped right back out. Maybe I’m not as good at slacking as I thought. Or maybe the ability to ease off the throttle actually helped me cross the finish line quicker.

What do you think? Tell us if you think you can be a productive procrastinator in the comments below.

[Image: Flickr user Ryan]

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5 Comments

  • Claude Alexandre Couture

    Procrastinate by doing something else is GREAT! You learn so many things that otherwise you never learned without procrastination. After your session, you feel renew and fresh! This is like to reboot your mind!

  • Pejames James de Villiers

    Loved what you said about your mourning routine and not looking at your phone the entire time... it makes so much sense! Getting your mind set before the start of the day.

  • Rebecca Jensen

    I have been examining my own state of mind while working, and I am constantly battling guilt when I take a break-- even when it's well-deserved!

    So I wonder if acheiving "productivity" really boils down to monitoring one's state of mind, keeping it positive, and being gentle on oneself.