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Work Smart: How to Make Procrastination Productive


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 Work Smart appears every week on

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