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Productive Procrastination

This one of those ‘chocolate is good for you’ articles, so please enjoy!!

Procrastination is of course the thief of time. It’s bad, naughty, naughty. Or at least it makes us feel guilty and anxious that we should be using our time better.

Trainers and coaches like me help you to understand and even the combat the urge to procrastinate with reference to Stephen Covey, or Mark Twain’s quote about eating frogs first thing in the morning (unfortunately, he didn’t mean the chocolate ones). We speak about the sins of dubious self-justification and the different excuses we make for procrastination.

But the fact is, some of these excuses are actually very valid, in some circumstances. The real trick is being honest with yourself about when procrastination can really help you get things done – and when it doesn’t!

In praise of procrastination

OK, so let’s look at some of the excuses and justifications for procrastination and give you some thoughts

  • If I do work at the last minute, I’m more focused. Magic Happens and I get stuff done

Verdict: This argument has some merit. If we try and force ourselves to do certain unappealing tasks, we will be conflicted and prone to distraction and temptation. When we wait till we have no alternative but to do the work, these distractions and temptations will be gone and we may be closer to achieving FLOW, getting in ‘the zone’ where we are fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus – and complete our task to a high standard.

  • If I delay the work, it might disappear!

Verdict: Yes, maybe, but it might be a long shot. The chances of this will vary according to your work, let’s say this happens 20% of the time, it’s not a great strategy for productivity generally.

  • If I delay, my worrying about the problem actually leads to better understanding and more ideas

Verdict: Yes, again there is some logic to this argument. Dithering and faffing can help. Decision-making and creative work, in particular can benefit from more time: Ernest Hemingway once told a fan who asked him how to write a novel that the first thing to do was to clean the fridge J

  • It helps get the admin and housekeeping done!

Verdict: Absolutely. No-one would ever find time for personal finance and social media updates (important business networking) if it wasn’t for procrastination. The test is, of course, but ask yourself “How useful and important this procrastination displacement business really is?”

  • Procrastination leads to more ethical decisions

Absolutely. This one has some academic research to back it up. Brian Gunia of john Hopkins University (Maryland) found that, when confronted with a clear choice between right and wrong, people are 5 times more likely to do the right thing if they have time to think about it than if they are forced to make a snap decision.

Strategic procrastination – and the tests

So yes, sometimes delay can help us – and this is increasingly supported by a number of popular management and motivation books such as:

  • “Thinking fast and slow” – Daniel Kahneman
  • “Wait – the art of science and delay” – Frank Partnoy

The proposal by the proponents of ‘strategic procrastination’ is to therefore get serious about procrastination and actively schedule tasks for very close to the last minute. This approach aims to:

  • Provide the focus and pressure to get you ‘in the zone’
  • Allow time for better understanding and creativity
  • Minimise the anxiety, conflict and self-talk that is normally associated with procrastination

This approach argues that it is much easier to work with your natural tendencies instead of against them. If you do what feels right, you will perform better.

This might work well for some people in some circumstances, but for me the tests are as follows:

  • Will such strategic procrastination make the problem better or worse, easier or harder?
  • Are you confident you will have sufficient time later on?
    • What if it requires more time than you have allocated?
    • What if you belatedly find you need assistance from others?
    • What if you are unexpectedly hit with urgent demands when you had scheduled time to do the work?
  • If you procrastinate, however strategically, will you still use your more immediate time productively on important work? Or will time be filled with unimportant, unproductive ‘busyness’?
  • Will the procrastination reduce or increase any distracting anxiety relating to this task?

Yes, it’s getting complicated!

But delay and procrastination are such important parts of our lives that we should start taking them seriously and try and get a bit more strategic.

Congratulations on getting to the end of the article. Please reward yourself with a (chocolate) frog!


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