Procrastination is your body telling you you need to back off a bit and think more about what you are doing.
According to Wikipedia (was there a world before wikipedia?), procrastination is “the practice of carrying out less urgent tasks in preference to more urgent ones, or doing more pleasurable things in place of less pleasurable ones, and thus putting off impending tasks to a later time, sometimes to the “last minute” before a deadline.
Sometimes in a sneaky way, like spending more time than needed on a task because I enjoy it. I can spend hours reading reviews and tests of fridges before making a decision to buy one. I know the next task (often a house chore) is not something I will enjoy. So I stay “stuck” in the previous task to delay starting the next one.
Other times, my procrastination is more straight forward. I am doing something I don’t really want to or I get stuck on a task, so my mind gets distracted and before I know it, I am doing something else than what I started and was supposed to do.
I admit I don’t procrastinate that much though and I do it less than I used to. I got to know myself better and put systems in place to reduce procrastination. But it’s still there and I fully accept it.
Actually, I like procrastination, it is a very useful tool. A combination of procrastination and discipline are guiding me towards what I “want” to do (what resonates with me) instead of what I “should” be doing (dictated by others or by a non-optimal plan).
What about running an experiment? An experiment that encompasses embracing procrastination to find out where it leads you? An analysis of procrastination that you can then leverage and benefit from?
Below are the 4 steps to take for such an experiment.
Following the steps, I will suggests some actions to take to put a plan together to benefit from procrastination rather than be penalized by it.
1. Embrace procrastination
Every time you catch yourself procrastinating, indulge in it. Let you procrastination guide you to doing whatever activity you crave. See where it leads you.
2. Analyze it
Then, analyze what has just happened. Ask yourself specific questions:
- What activities have you been doing? Typical activities are: checking emails, checking social networking sites, checking your phones (text messages, WhatsApp, …)
- Are they linked together or just random? Activities linked together would be looking at Facebook, then Twitter, then clicking on links to video games news in Twitter, then carrying on reading video games news on other websites,…
- Did your mind follow a specific thinking pattern? Like getting an email from a friend, which leads to checking friends on Facebook, which then leads to checking your Linkedin profile, etc.
- Did you have a purpose in your procrastination, anything specific you wanted to achieve? Examples: sorting out your holiday pictures, checking job offers on Linkedin.
- Where you trying to escape a specific activity you don’t enjoy or resent doing? Like paying your bills or sorting out your car insurance.
- What was the timescale of the activity, the time needed to finish it? A short time (10 minutes), an average time (10 minutes – one hour), a relatively long time (1 hour – one day) or a long time (> 1 day)?
Make sure you write down the answers to these questions.
3. Write down your feelings
- How did procrastination make you feel on the spot?
- And afterwards?
- Did you feel anxiety? Self-loathing? Depressed?
- Do you feel you are deliberately putting yourself in a crisis situation by procrastinating instead of finishing an urgent task as a sort of cry for help? A way to draw attention or even indulging in feeling sorry for yourself?
Here again, make sure you write everything down.
Also, take the time to imprint those feelings in your mind. Being able to call upon the “negative” part of these feelings at the onset of a procrastinating episode can be useful to prevent it from lasting longer than desirable.
4. Repeat 1-3 and analyze some more
Repeat the experiment a few times to gather more data. Do it five times for example.
Then, have a look at the data.
- Do you see patterns emerging?
- Are you doing the same procrastinating activities again and again? Or do they look pretty random?
- Are there a small number of specific activities that trigger procrastination systematically? Or are many activities triggering it?
- Do you systematically get the same feelings before procrastinating and then while doing it? And afterwards?
Here again, take the time to write down your thoughts and observations.
You should now have a written down analysis of your procrastination triggers and typical behaviours that ensue (unless you discovered pretty random events, which I doubt). With that in hand, let’s see what we can do to put the analysis to good use.
Spot procrastination and accept it as a useful metric
This 4 steps experiment will have made you more aware of how often you procrastinate and in what circumstances this happens. You can spot procrastination more easily. This information is useful data that can be used to make adjustments in your life to lessen the amount of procrastination you do. We will cover that in the next section.
Also hopefully the experiment will help you accept procrastination as something useful, something you can embrace. After all, it is a manifestation of your mind, giving you an array of information, telling for example you that:
- It is bored
- It is tired
- It is currently having a hard time and asking for a rest (the lazy brain, a major cause of procrastination)
- It is resisting the current activity as the reasons for doing the activity and consequences for not doing it are not clear and convincing enough
- It is resisting as the task has been imposed on us by someone else (studies have shown that it is a great cause of procrastination)
- It sees the task at hand as not urgent enough and the benefits of finishing the task are too far away, out of grasp
That doesn’t mean we should all have a free pass to endless procrastination (although that would be nice, wouldn’t it?), but we can accept procrastination as a positive activity, as long as it’s kept under check.
A final observation from the experiment is that, as long of the consequence of your procrastination is perceived as mild, we tend to procrastinate. Transforming the learning into an actionable outcome, we can raise the perceived negative consequences of procrastination in order to lower the threshold at which we stop ourselves from procrastinating.
Now make a plan
Studies have shown a correlation between procrastination and a low focus on the future. Procrastinators tend to have a greater focus on the present and a fatalistic approach toward life and their future.
Turning this around means that by increasing our focus on the future we can decrease our procrastination. If we have a clear plan for our future, with strong reasons for following our plan (a valuable outcome) and if we “believe” in a promising future, we are less likely to procrastinate.
Using all the knowledge gathered through the experiment and its analysis, you can now put a plan together to leverage procrastination while keeping it under control.
Your written plan should describe clearly:
- How to spot (not stop) procrastination. What the early signs and the typical triggers are, in what circumstances it typically happens
- What to do when it happens. Actions would be to: reflect on why you are procrastinating and adapt your task plan to raise your motivation (make sure you have clear reasons for doing what you are doing, delegate what you are weak at). Get rid of tasks that don’t make sense. Indulge in a little bit of procrastination to get it out of your system
- What you can do to raise the perceive negative consequences of procrastination and therefore lower the threshold at which you stop procrastinating.
- When to call upon the “negative” feelings that you have imprinted in step 3 to prevent you from procrastinating too much
- How you can avoid the temptation of procrastination by “disarming” it beforehand. This is done by making sure you have sold yourself on the task at hand, by practicing “focusing”, by slicing up tasks in reasonable chunks of time (e.g. 1 hour), by creating urgency, by avoiding distractions and by making yourself accountable. For more details, see the post here.
With a clear plan, you can now execute on it.
Follow your plan
Keep your plan handy and follow it every time you spot procrastination. Keep making adjustments where necessary based on what procrastination is telling you. Make sure you have sold yourself on your daily activities. Build a passionate life and it will be much easier to benefit from procrastination rather than suffer from it. These two articles, here and there will help you build such a life.
While writing this post, I have procrastinated. I have checked my emails a few times, read a few pages of a book, checked books reviews on Amazon and checked news on LinkedIn. While doing it, I was fully aware of what was happening.
Every time the words would not flow on the page, I would seek distraction. Adversity (the lazy brain) is a good trigger for procrastination. When that happens, I would spot it, stop myself and refocus on the article by recalling “negative” feelings I get after not achieving something because of procrastination (item #4 of the plan in the previous section).
But when the desire to procrastinate (seek distraction away from the task at hand) became overwhelming, I would indulge in a minute of procrastination to get rid of the thoughts in my head. Once the thought becomes an obsession in my head, it kills my productivity anyway, so I’d rather check my email quickly and get back to work.
I got used to spotting patterns. I know when I start a specific activity whether I am likely to procrastinate or not. That’s why I have my plan ready to keep procrastination under control.
I love procrastination. It is a great a way to take a step back and not take myself too seriously. It’s a reminder that life is not all about work, it’s about feeling excited and fulfilled. It’s about being happy and enjoying the journey. Having a good time is important and procrastination is part of the equation.
So do what you have to do and don’t let procrastination ruin your life (follow your plan). But also remember to listen to your brain. Don’t forget to relax and take it easy on your journey.
Is procrastination a problem in your life? Have you tried different methods to fight it? Do you use it as a way to understand yourself better and take actions?
Please share your stories and comments in the comment section below.