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How to procrastinate constructively

Last updated on 
January 3, 2020

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Procrastination gets a pretty bad rep. People often treat it as a waste of time or threat to productivity – but this isn’t always the case. Some of the most successful people in the world have been procrastinators – Steve Jobs, Bill Clinton and Leonardo da Vinci, to name just three – and many of us discredit a completely healthy (and useful) part of our natural creative process. As big proponents of balanced workflows and quality breaks, here are our top tips on how to procrastinate constructively.

Understanding procrastination

Roughly 20% of adults report being habitual procrastinators – most of whom view their behavior as negative. It’s true that procrastinating can have a detrimental effect on productivity and limit the quality of work. Swallowing up productive time and pushing a task to the last minute can result in a haphazard rush to complete it on time – often resulting in going with the easiest solution, rather than the most innovative.

But this view largely confuses poor time management with essential productive breaks. Far from being time wasted, procrastination can help get your creative juices going by acting as a breather for your brain. Procrastination has been shown to encourage creativity and divergent thinking, and regular breaks can significantly boost motivation. When conceptualizing, our initial ideas tend to be our most conventional. By procrastinating and allow your mind to wander, you can approach tasks with a completely fresh perspective.

Towards structured procrastination

The key to all this is “structured procrastination”, a seemingly paradoxical term first coined by Stanford professor John Perry. The main difference between procrastination – where you’re not doing the thing you're supposed to be doing – and structured procrastination, is that with the latter you aren’t wasting time; you’re actually using your tendency to avoid tasks to your advantage. So how do you do this?

  1. Create a list where you rate the jobs you have to do, in order of most important to least.
  2. Pick an important task you aren’t excited about working on – then put it on hold. Surrender to your desire to procrastinate…
  3. But direct this procrastination towards other tasks. Forget about catching up with your favorite series and refer back to your list ¬– what other, smaller jobs do you need to do?

Structured procrastination works with your propensity to put things off – not against it. Yes, you’re still procrastinating, but you’re not wasting time and you’re getting other jobs done, too. You might not have filled out your tax return yet, but you did reply to all those emails you’ve had flagged for weeks.

How to master structured procrastination

Keep two to-do lists: Have a ‘big’ list of important tasks you want to accomplish (e.g. writing and submitting an important report), and another ‘small’ list containing minor tasks (e.g. organizing your desk). Unfocused procrastination isn’t useful, but having a list of other things ready to do is. When you can’t face tackling a big task, turn your attention to a small one.

Tick off the small things: Positive reinforcement has a significant effect on productivity, so crossing off the small tasks from your list can have a big impact. If you made a phone call or replied to an email, that’s two things to tick off your list, which makes you feel good and ready to tackle other jobs.

Don't be too hard on yourself: Getting angry because you haven’t done what you were supposed to do doesn’t help. It doesn’t give you the energy and outlook to get up and go – if anything, it makes you feel even less motivated.

Turn off your social media: While some modes of procrastination are useful and beneficial for creativity, social media isn’t one of them. If you’re serious about only spending energy on tasks that are actually useful, log out of your social media, mute notifications or flat out block social websites to avoid temptation.

End on a high: If you do need a break from a task, try to stop on a high point. If you’re writing a report, for example, take a break once you’ve written a sentence or paragraph you feel good about. When you return to the task later, you’ll be able to pick it up feeling positive.

The key is to remember that there’s a certain degree of creativity that comes with constructive procrastination. Ideas, productivity and motivation can’t be forced; neither are they usually sustained for long periods of time. Take a break, do another job – just remember to get to that big task eventually.

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