As a freelance writer who works from home, I spend a lot of time procrastinating (if I have ever met you, even in passing, I have Facebooked/Googled you, just FYI). But I spend even more time beating myself up about my procrastination. After all, when you think of the positive attributes of yourself or someone else, “big procrastinator” never makes the list.
For most of us, procrastination is synonymous with lazy. But what if we looked at procrastination differently? I was complaining one day to my sister, who happens to be an ADHD coach whose job is to help people who are “stuck in unproductive habits,” about how I couldn’t seem to overcome my pathological leave-it-till-later-ness. “Patty, procrastinating is just part of your process,” she said. “You’re doing fine.” It is? I am?
I just might be. In fact, procrastination can be a good thing, when used strategically. “People who procrastinate carry an unfair amount of guilt. But some of the most successful people in the world are procrastinators,” says Rory Vaden, author of Take the Stairs. In his latest book, Procrastinate on Purpose, Vaden says he is “inviting people to wait until the last minute. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing.” What is a bad thing? Berating yourself as lazy, unmotivated and inefficient for not buckling down and crossing items off your to-do list every minute of the day. Procrastination can actually help you work better, faster and more creatively. And if your house gets cleaned and your socks get matched as a side effect, all the better. Here’s how to procrastinate positively.
The Plus Sides of Procrastination
When you postpone doing something, “your subconscious is still working on the task,” says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love. When you go for a run or walk, or suddenly decide that you need to vacuum under all the beds in your home or to organize your kids’ Lego collection instead of sitting down in front of your computer, you are allowing ideas to gestate and percolate. It may feel like you’re wasting time, but you’re actually giving your brain time to get around the project.
“Mind-wandering,” as experts call it, has been shown to increase creativity, says Srinivasan Pillay, M.D., a neuroscientist and assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who coaches companies and executives on productivity. “If you’re looking for a creative solution, then procrastination can be very helpful.” For me, most of my procrastination happens after I do the research for a story, but before I start writing. Perfecting my online word-game skills, I now know, is not entirely mindless. It’s mind-wandering. I’m letting the information sink in and synthesizing it so that when I do sit down to write, I’m really ready.
Procrastination also allows stress to build up as due dates approach. This anxiety can motivate you to get the job done, Pillay says. The century-old Yerkes-Dodson law holds that there’s an inverted U-shaped relationship between stress and performance. According to it, performance improves as stress (arousal) increases, to a point. If you can harness the anxiety of an imminent due date instead of letting it overwhelm you, then procrastination can be a legitimate productivity strategy. (If the constant stress leads to burnout, however, you’ll need to rethink your habit, Pillay says.)
Sometimes procrastinating is not only beneficial, but necessary, Vaden says. “We’re all so trained to think that it’s best to get things done right away, but that’s not always the smartest thing to do.” If you finish a report, say, six months in advance, you’ll probably have to spend time updating your work later to account for new information. “Doing something early doesn’t save time,” Vaden says, “it just moves time from the future, and then you risk unexpected change. Procrastination can prevent time spent reworking.”
How to Procrastinate Positively
1. Do it intentionally. “If you’re delaying out of fear, that is negative procrastination,” Vaden says. “But if you’re intentionally waiting, that’s positive.” So if you know you need a while to let ideas percolate and let your mind wander, consciously give yourself that time. And if you’re putting something off because it makes more sense strategically, set a date and a time when you will start it. Yes, you can schedule procrastination!
2. Figure out why you’re waiting. If you’re not procrastinating on purpose, as Vaden calls it, try to get to the reason behind your stalling. Is the task you’re delaying aligned with your values? (Maybe you have to write a news release for a product that you don’t believe in, for example.) Are you afraid of failure? (Your dream is to open a coffee shop, but it feels so risky.) Is your procrastination a way to communicate to someone? (Your significant other asked you to call a plumber to take care of the leaky shower, but you feel like she’s too bossy.) Once your answers are simply information, not judgments against you, they can help you make better decisions.
3. Don’t feel guilty. Even if you end up procrastinating unintentionally, don’t berate yourself for it. Feeling bad about your work habits can catch you in a negative cycle of self-reproach and further procrastination, because you start to feel like you can't do the work. “The No. 1 cause of procrastination is self-criticism,” Vaden says. Instead, accept what’s happening and try to move on.
4. Understand what “last minute” means. “ ‘Last minute’ is when you have adequate time to finish a product on time, on budget, without compromising quality and without stressing out yourself or those around you,” Vaden says. It’s OK to wait until the last minute, but if you’re staying up all night, incurring late fees or doing not-so-great work, you’re probably waiting until after the last minute.
Procrastinate with things you enjoy. When we procrastinate, we often feel too guilty to do fun things, so instead we force ourselves to sit at the computer all day, scrolling through Facebook and taking online quizzes. What if you went for a bike ride instead? Or made cookies? Or went out for sushi with a friend? Doing activities that you actually like can inspire a new motivation for the project you were putting off, Pillay says.
5. Solve a small problem. Stuck in a rut of procrastination? Find a small job or task—answering an email, making your bed, straightening up your desk—that you can easily complete. Successfully finishing something, however small, can spark your productivity for the bigger stuff.
6. Get an accountability partner. Team with someone objective—not your boss or significant other or a competitor—someone with whom you can share your goals and deadlines, Lombardo suggests. Figure out ways—a morning walk or coffee during which you chat about your progress, perhaps, or a weekly email check-in—that you can help each other stay on track.