Click here to preview the new Fast Company

Want to try out the new

If you’d like to return to the previous design, click the yellow button on the lower left corner.


I'm guilty of this myself: Structured procrastination. It's not that I put off deadlines. And it's not that I forgo work for activities not related to my job at work. But sometimes, especially immediately preceding crunch times, I find myself doing work for work's sake. Make work, if you will. I'm working, but I'm not working.

Aaron Swartz recently wrote an interesting item about procrastination and its role in the workplace. Though aimed primarily at programmers, I found it resonating with me, as well.

We'll happily do the work we're putting off if there's a more important task we can put off by doing it. It's not anything intrinsic to the task, but the outside importance of the task that makes us procrastinate. But what possible reason could we have for putting off tasks that are important? For creative work, tasks that are externally motivated are done less creatively than those that are internally motivated.

What do you think? Is there something here? What role do you think procrastination plays in your work life? In your organization?

Add New Comment


  • Clynton Taylor

    Yep, that's me, too. I've started my own company and for the past two years have been mostly a nomadic worker--from home to coffee shop, to other coffee shop, to park, to library, etc. It worked well for times when I needed to do some creative thought, but that was about it.

    I've gotten a lot better at getting things done now I have my own office and wall space to hang project materials up on.

    I think one of the answers is to bring in structure and processes for getting things done. I started getting up at the same time everyday, making it to work the same time, etc. Then, establishing routines for during the day helped--a time to hammer away and get all the little things done (emails, short tasks, etc.) and then a block, emphasis on block, of time to fully-focus on a larger project--usually 2 hours, since it takes time to warm up.

    When I feel myself procrastinating, too, I try and stop and reflect on why I am. It's usually because I'm not sure of exactly what needs to be done, can't see a clear path to the end result, or jsut plain don't like doing what needs to be done. I find that by 'catching' myself and identifying the reasons for procrastination two things happen: 1) I am able to figure out a solution, and 2) I have taken away the little excuse I find myself holding onto that I didn't really know I was procrastinating and even if I did, I didn't know what to do about it.

    Then again, since I am sometimes most productive when procrastinating--suddenly I find an interest and solutions for problems and projects that were previously the ones I was procrastinating on--I just go with it and use the momentum to get other things done. Pretty crazy, though, that one of the best cures to procrastination is procrastination of another task!

    Well, a fine example of procrastinating I just performed.

    One last note: Reflexive thought, the kind that helps you see WHY you are doing what you are doing is the key here. Then write the solutions out on paper and organize yourself.

  • Factory Joe

    Yeah, pretty much sums up how I ended up reading this post! What might those of us in the consulting/freelancing business do to curtail this marginally productive behavior? Is self-discipline the only answer?

  • cheryl

    Procrastination plays a constant role in my work and school life. I've stumbled across John Perry's article before -- Both it and the one you just linked to make perfect sense to me (Yes! That is why and how I procrastate). Having all this insight isn't actually helping me change my behaviour, but it's still interesting.

    Carleton University has some sort of procrastination research project going on.

    By the way, looking for info on procrasination is an excellent way to procrastinate.

  • Steve

    Very interesting! I work primarily from home (and coffee shops) for an office hundreds of miles away. I think Aaron Swartz is right on the money in his assessment. It seems like the more important a task — the more critical it is I get it done well and on time — the more likely I am to try to find anything else I can do to avoid doing that task. It causes me all kinds of stress that could be avoided if I would just do the task and get it over with. And yet I do it (or rather DON'T do it!) time after time. I think I'm getting better, though, as I realize more and more that doing the task is never as bad as worrying about doing it. And the satisfaction of getting it done is great.

    I found this wasn't nearly as big a problem when I was working in an office full of people because I had positive peer pressure and a dynamic environment to kick me in the pants. When I have to just wake up each day and jump start myself, it's much harder. We all have natural ups and downs in our productivity, but as long as our entire team doesn't have a dip in productivity all at the same time, it all balances out. When working on your own, though, you feel the full impact of those ups and downs. I'm still working to find out how to be as productive as possible as much of the time as possible. I find that when I feel like I'm in a rut, a change of scenery seems to work best. I go to a coffee shop. If I don't have to be online — when I'm working on an article, for example — I find it helps to go somewhere without Internet access so it's not an option to get sucked in to e-mail and the Web. Starting the day by making a to-do list and prioritizing it also helps a great deal.