Forget everything you’ve heard: Not only is procrastination totally normal, knowing how and when to procrastinate can actually make you more productive than trying to fight it. Here’s what I’ve learned by embracing procrastination.
You’re Always Procrastinating On Something
There are only 24 hours in a day, which is rarely enough time to tackle your to-do list. This perceived time crunch makes you hyper-aware that the opportunity cost of completing one project is not completing another. Procrastination is all about managing these tradeoffs.
Let’s say you’re working on a major project at work. You’re trying to get promoted, so it’s important that you do this project well. You also have a new book you want to read. For the past week, you’ve stayed late to work on the project and have not read a single page of the book. So you technically have been procrastinating–on reading the book–because you made the choice that working on the project was more important.
But after facing situations like this continuously, I finally realized two things:
- I’ll always be procrastinating on something; but,
- It isn’t really that bad if I don’t do everything right away.
This simple realization was actually pretty liberating. It helped me reframe procrastination as a tool for longer-term time-management, rather than a mark of failure. So now, for example, any time an idea for a blog post comes to me, I simply write it down, rather than assign myself the task of actually writing the whole post that day or even that week. Yes, this means my to-do list keeps growing each day; there’s no way I can write all those posts at one time, so I’m forced to put them off.
But that’s a good thing: rather than just procrastinating on those important tasks indefinitely, I’ve learned to give them a place lower down on my to-do list, where they’re actually more likely to get done.
How “Structured Procrastination” Works
Don’t believe me? Take it from John Perry, professor of philosophy at Stanford University, who wrote about the idea of “structured procrastination” more than 20 years ago in the Chronicle of Higher Education. When you procrastinate, he observed, you’re typically still doing something (rather than just being lazy)–it’s just that you’re avoiding doing something else that you perceive to be more important: How many times have I had a blog to write, for instance, only to spend hours on Facebook? Or how about all the times I avoiding running errands to binge watch House of Cards?
Perry goes on to argue that the typical approach to stopping procrastination like this is wrong. Most people think if they can eliminate their near-term commitments or distractions, they will quit procrastinating and get the important items done. However, since you are always procrastinating to some extent–including on clearly important tasks–then just having a smaller to-do list won’t help. Restructuring your to-do list, however, might.
Like most people, I tend to avoid the important items at the top of my list, but inspired by Perry, I realized that I could simply push them down the list. This forced me to find more “important” tasks to put above them. According to Perry, the tasks that are good candidates for this inflated “importance” usually have two characteristics: They appear to have “clear deadlines (but really don’t), and they seem awfully important (but they really aren’t).” Since you’ll likely procrastinate on those anyway, pushing them to the top of your to-do list lets you use your naturally tendency to procrastinate to the lower items, so you can accomplish the truly important items on your list.
Think about all the tasks you create self-imposed deadlines for, like cleaning out old clothes from your closet. You tell yourself it needs to be done by the end of the month and that it’s important because you need more closet space. If you’re like me, you’ve probably been telling yourself something like this for a few months.
But whether you clean out your closet now or a year from now really doesn’t matter; you’ve given it an inflated sense of importance and an undue sense of urgency. So if you intentionally put off cleaning and organizing for other tasks, you’ll be able to coach yourself into seeing your smaller to-dos as worthy, daily undertakings and your bigger ones as the less-urgent, longer-term projects they are.
Yes, flipping your to-do list around is a pretty simple mind game, but it’s worked great for me. By embracing my natural tendency to procrastinate, I’ve actually gotten better at executing near-term tasks whose true importance I didn’t realize I was downplaying. I now know that procrastination can be a productivity tool over the long haul–I just need to work harder at it.
Joe Sterf is a CPA, who is passionate about helping others learn about personal finance. He is the Founder of Average Joe Finance, where he demystifies complex financial topics.