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These are the 5 lies you’ve been told about procrastination

Willpower and time management won’t help you combat it.

These are the 5 lies you’ve been told about procrastination
[Photo: mvp/Unsplash]

If there’s one habit that most people struggle with, it’s procrastination. Whether you’re a perfectionist who’s terrified of failing, or you constantly underestimate how long it will take to complete a task, the act of putting something off makes us all a little uneasy.

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That’s why we see countless articles and books that promise to tell us how to combat procrastination once and for all (many of which are published in Fast Company). Unfortunately, some of this advice also perpetuates myths about procrastination that can make it harder to manage. Here are five things about procrastination that you need to stop believing:

1. It’s a bad habit that you need to get rid of

There’s an underlying message to all these ‘how to combat procrastination’ articles. They imply that procrastination is a bad habit that you must get rid of at all costs.

But there are certain times when procrastination can be beneficial. For starters, it can lead to better decisions. Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art Of Science And Delay, previously told Fast Company that when we’re ruminating on something, we’re processing and gathering information. “True wisdom and judgment come from understanding our limitations when it comes to thinking about the future,” Partnoy wrote.

Procrastination can also be a helpful management technique. Yes, you read that right. If you’re a manager, your team will probably pepper you with more questions and requests than you can handle. Don’t attend to them all right away.

As Fast Company contributor and psychology professor Art Markman previously wrote, “As a manager, putting off certain requests–at least for a little while–prevents you from becoming a one-stop-shop for your direct reports. That way, they’ll learn to search for things themselves before coming to you. Over time, many of the issues, questions, and requests they approach you with initially will begin to evaporate. Everybody wins: You get some time back, and your team members learn to solve more problems on their own.”

2. Precrastinating is better than procrastinating

On the other side of the procrastination spectrum, we have precrastinators. These individuals don’t put tasks off but complete them long before the due date, because they want to get it done as soon as possible. To procrastinators, this might sound like a dream, but they’re not necessarily always more productive than procrastinators.

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As a 2014 Pennsylvania State University study found, precrastinators don’t always deal well with interruptions. If they’re in the middle of finishing a report and a client calls, for example, their mind might still be on that report rather than on the client they’re talking to. “A procrastinator, on the other hand, may capitalize on that interruption and perform better because it delays work further,” Lisa Evans previously wrote.

3. Self-imposed deadlines are an effective way to beat procrastination

A common advice in the “how to beat procrastination” genre is to set a “fake” deadline. That way, even if you do procrastinate, you’ll do so in advance of your real deadline.

But that’s not always effective. Research shows that it can impair performance and quality of your work. You don’t suddenly become more disciplined when there’s a shorter deadline, nor will you be able to find more willpower. A more effective method is to find ways to make that unpleasant task enjoyable, so that you’ll actually want to do it sooner.

4. Procrastination is a time management problem

This brings us to the next myth. Many productivity books and articles treat procrastination as if it’s a time-management issue and that being organized can solve all your problems.

Not so. At the root of it, procrastination is about emotions and mood management. Think about it, you put off doing a task because of the unpleasant feelings that you associate with it, so you opt to do something that makes you feel good in the moment (such as scrolling on Instagram or watching cat videos on YouTube). The key to tackling procrastination, Drake Baer previously wrote in Fast Company, is to explore the feelings that made you want to avoid that thing in the first place.

As RescueTime’s Jory MacKay previously wrote, the key is to manage “your emotions so they don’t get hijacked by your inner critic.” That starts with self-compassion. How many times have you beaten yourself up for not starting a task, only to feel even worse and less motivated afterward. When you forgive yourself for not starting the task as early as you want to, it lessens the negative association you have with it, and you’ll have more of an incentive to complete it.

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5. Procrastination slows down any type of work

There’s also a belief that procrastinating is a waste of time, and that you’re foregoing precious hours that you could have spent working or making your project better.

But when it comes to certain types of work, procrastination can actually help you be more efficient. As Markman previously wrote for Fast Company, when you do mentally taxing work, you actually do need to procrastinate. “A lot of what you’re asked to do at work demands creative problem solving. For those kinds of projects, it helps to give yourself frequent breaks. Why? Because chipping away at tough problems is actually really taxing on your memory. You’ve got to pull information out of your recollection of past experiences in order to come up with a good solution. So chances are if you’re not making much headway, you’re not actually retrieving anything that’s helpful.”

If you do force yourself to push through, what you’ll end up doing is focus on the same bits of information, but when you procrastinate and do something else, you’re giving your brain time to process and make new connections. As Markman said, “That increases the chances that you’ll pull out new information that will give you a more valuable perspective on whatever you’re working on.”

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About the author

Anisa is the assistant editor for Fast Company's Work Life section. She covers everything from productivity to the future of work

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