Procrastination Can Be Your Ally

If you’re a procrastinator, please raise your hand – when you get around to it. You know the drill: you tinker with your calendar and move tasks to a later due date, you find yourself cramming the day before deadlines, or your answers to the questions “What am I doing now?” and “What should I be doing now?” don’t match.

Studies show that roughly 15-20% of people are procrastinators, and you might believe you’re one of them. Does this mean you have a problem?

No, not really.

It’s similar to getting a fever – it seems horrible on the surface, but your body is actually trying to fix itself. In the same way, procrastination feels like a weakness, but you can use it as an opportunity to learn more about your working habits and improve them.

First of all, procrastinating helps you find out what your priorities are. What you are working on is a more honest reflection of your working life than what you should be working on.

When most people procrastinate, they postpone a task in favor of one of these three things: something more important, something trivial, or something completely recreational. Your choice out of these three often reveals the root of your procrastination.

Working on something trivial. When you’re working on something trivial, it’s something that won’t be remembered by future generations. In fact, you won’t even remember it next week – not because of your quality of work, but because of the nature of the task. It’s more of an errand than it is “real work.”

For example, you should be working on an ebook due in the next two days, but you spend your time writing an unnecessary blog post. Or, if you’re a designer, you aren’t working on that important redesign for your client. Instead, you’re tweaking the RSS button on your own site. These tasks aren’t urgent nor are they part of the big picture.

Usually, when you work on something less important, you’re anxious or overwhelmed about The Task You Should Do. Whether you think it’s beyond your skill or you won’t finish it in time, The Task You Should Do is like a bad childhood memory. The more you repress it, the more it will come back to haunt you.

Working on something more important. You might have only one clean shirt left, but you’d prefer to work on programming your new web app rather than do the laundry. Not the hygienic choice, but at least you’re working on the monumental projects.

Working on the bigger projects when the smaller ones are due means you are annoyed with the smaller task, or you don’t see the point. These tasks are probably several notches below your skill level, and you might be happy if someone does them for you. At the very least, these tasks aren’t in your field of interest.

Doing something completely recreational. Sometimes, you might choose entertainment or leisure to avoid The Task You Should Do. Going for this option usually means you just need to take a break or you aren’t in the mood to work yet. This often seems like laziness, but shouldn’t be taken at face value. Just make sure that it doesn’t get out of hand.

The Cure. While there are no surefire ways to eliminate procrastination, here are some ideas you can start with:

  • Newer approach to work. Accept that trivial tasks are part of the working life – whether you’re in the corporate world or a freelancer. The trick is to find an organizational system that works for you. Research shows that evenly spaced, regular deadlines work better.
  • Change of location. I previously wrote about the alternatives to your home office. Try working in these places if you find yourself procrastinating at home.
  • Embrace imperfection. The thought of getting a project perfect can be paralyzing. Allow yourself to make mistakes. You’ll find that most of them are either reversible or reparable anyway.
  • Farm out nonessentials. The trivial tasks you hate doing, either automate or outsource them, if possible. This allows you to concentrate on the projects or tasks that really matter to you.
  • Use “procrastination time” to do tasks that will get you in the mood to work. Feel like procrastinating? Try to use your time to do tasks that will get you back in the mood to work.

It actually took me 5 days of procrastinating to get around writing this article. Was I doing research or did the topic scare me because it hit close to home? I guess we all need to procrastinate once in a while to get a firmer grasp on our goals, priorities, and work processes.

And, as that old joke goes: “Procrastinate now. Don’t put it off.”

Photo Credit: Image by Magic Marie

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