Procrastination gets a bad rap. It’s associated with laziness, poor performance, and a lack of self-discipline. Psychologists, authors, and coaches tell procrastinators how to avoid procrastination. Diligent parents teach their children how to do their homework in advance.
In short, society views procrastination as a problem that needs to be solved.
The problem with this attitude is that responding to crises on the spot or doing things far in advance aren’t always good decisions.
Sometimes, putting off tasks until later is simply a part of good time management.
Creating a sense of urgency around a task can actually help you work more diligently, use time more efficiently, and even help you produce higher quality work.
The key is to know how to avoid procrastination that makes you feel overwhelmed, and instead embrace procrastination as a strategy for better time management.
What is procrastination?
In theory, procrastination can result in missed deadlines, high stress, or even failing on a project.
But it doesn’t have to.
According to Dictionary.com, procrastination is the “act or habit of procrastinating, or putting off or delaying, especially something requiring immediate attention.”
Here’s the catch to that definition.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed, stressed out, or irrational, you may not be able to make a good decision about what requires your immediate attention.
In other words, putting off the task at hand might not be a bad idea. Delaying a task might simply be an indicator that you’re managing your time well. You’re making a decision to compartmentalize, handle the task at hand with the right mindset, and accomplish your to do list items with maximum efficiency.
Before we learn how to leverage procrastination to our advantage, let’s take a look at why we procrastinate…and why the tips don’t often work.
Why we procrastinate and why the tips don’t often work
Procrastinating is defined as the act of delaying an important action. But more than not taking action, procrastination is a mindset—a behavior with psychological underpinnings.
When you choose to delay a task, there might be one of several factors at play.
- You’re feeling so overwhelmed and stressed out that you feel “paralyzed.” Instead of acting on the task at hand, you choose to distract yourself and even do non-work related activities (such as household chores or errands).
- You’re unable to handle the negative emotions associated with the task. Psychology professor Dr. Fuschia Sirois says that “People engage in this irrational cycle of chronic procrastination because of an inability to manage negative moods around a task.” In other words, your choice to procrastinate is an emotional one.
- You’re addicted to social media, your email inbox, and the news. You know that you need to accomplish a task, but your brain craves the immediate dopamine rewards of checking a notification or reading a new headline instead.
The psychological downsides of procrastination are self-perpetuating. The more you procrastinate because of unhealthy reasons, the more psychological distress you experience. And the more distress you feel, the less likely you are to accomplish your best work.
There’s plenty of advice out there on how to avoid procrastination. Here are just a few common tips to avoid this habit:
- Create visual reminders to help you stay on task. This might include a to do list, phone reminders, or even motivational graphics in your work space.
- Reward yourself for finishing tasks with small breaks or a cup of coffee.
- Silence your phone or use website blockers to eliminate distractions.
- Spend time with like-minded people who can keep you motivated.
While all of these habits may be beneficial, none of them get at the root of procrastination: a poor mindset surrounding time management, work, and goal-setting.
To dig a bit deeper into the root of procrastination, let’s take a look at two common beliefs about this habit.
Two myths about how to avoid procrastination
Myth 1. Procrastination and laziness are the same
One common belief is that procrastination is simply laziness, or the intentional avoidance of productive work in favor of rest or recreation.
As you’ve just discovered, however, procrastination isn’t really about a lack of motivation. More often than not, procrastination is rooted in a lack of knowledge about time management.
Procrastinators don’t necessarily want to put off work; they just don’t know how to tackle their to do lists effectively.
Myth 2. Procrastination is just a matter of removing distractions
A second common belief about how to avoid procrastination is that distractions are the culprit. Social media, text messaging, game apps, and online shopping are surely to blame, and by removing them, we eliminate the opportunity to procrastinate.
Procrastination, however, is not the result of external influences. Again, it’s the result of having a poor mindset.
At the end of the day, the common beliefs—and advice—about procrastination aren’t very helpful for reframing your habits.
Instead, we’re suggesting a counterintuitive strategy for accomplishing your best work at the best time: embracing procrastination when needed, and defeating unhealthy attitudes about work.
Embrace procrastination: a practical guide on how to manage procrastination
As the child of two professed “anti-procrastinators,” I grew up with parents that turned in paperwork well before deadlines, showed up to the airport two hours early, and never, ever put anything off until the last minute.
While this behavior does have its benefits (we never missed a flight!), I also saw it produce a couple of unhelpful mindsets.
- To do items can feel overwhelming fast when you feel obligated to do everything immediately. Being able to compartmentalize and put off things until later is key to keeping stress at bay and being able to enjoy the moment.
- People who do everything well in advance tend to spend more time than necessary on specific tasks. Parkinson’s law says that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In other words, if you’ve got an hour to write an email that should take you 20 minutes, you’ll likely spend the entire hour writing the email.
Putting off tasks until later isn’t always a bad choice. In fact, it’s often a good choice and an indicator that you’re prioritizing well and managing your stress.
Nowhere have I learned this more than in my own career as a content writer. If I consider the amount of content I write on a weekly or monthly basis in advance, my head would explode. But I choose to compartmentalize my obligations, and typically work on assignments and projects immediately before they are due.
I have learned to work quickly and efficiently, and not to get overwhelmed by 10,000+ word counts. I have also learned to stay in the flow, remain focused and diligent when under pressure, and even produce my best work as a result of procrastination.
Procrastination at work
Here’s what healthy, strategic delaying might look like at work.
- You’ve got a large-scale project that will take weeks to accomplish, along with your other regular responsibilities. Instead of getting started on it ASAP and stressing about the deadline, you segment out a few full days to work on it. You then schedule out those days over the next few weeks, and continue working on regular tasks, stress-free.
- A co-worker sends you a Slack message about a task that needs to get done. You assess its level of urgency and importance (medium level), and choose to finish what you’re doing first before responding.
- You’ve got a 900-word article to write. With research, it should take you three hours to complete. (If you don’t know how long an article like that will take you, it helps to track your time). It’s due EOD on Tuesday; you start at 1 p.m. on Tuesday to give yourself a cushion that’s just large enough to account for unexpected research or edits.
If the idea of doing any of the above stresses you out, you may want to reconsider how you think about work in the first place. You may be attributing more weight to a project than is rational, or allowing something to overwhelm you that shouldn’t.
Procrastination when studying
Strategic procrastination doesn’t just apply to the workplace.
Undergrads and grad school students often have heavy workloads to manage, with looming deadlines for papers and intensive exams. In fact, even more than many professionals, students need to know how to manage their time well in order to study sufficiently, do research, and write.
Here’s what healthy procrastination might look like for a student:
- While we don’t necessarily recommend cramming for exams or pulling all-nighters, it can be helpful to chunk out long blocks of time for specific subjects.
Instead of studying each subject every day during midterms, for example, schedule out two to three blocks of time for each class before the exam. This helps you get into flow and remain focused on the task at hand without shifting gears.
- Getting overwhelmed by everything you may need to do in a season (such as exam season) will only make studying more difficult. Put off thinking about an exam or paper you need to worry about until absolutely necessary.
- Learn to assess the importance and urgency of different classes and tasks, and respond accordingly. If a specific exam doesn’t account for a large percentage of your grade, you may want to put off studying until the last minute.
Ultimately, the key to getting work done—whether that’s putting together a proposal or writing a midterm—is knowing how to do your work at the right time.
Are you procrastinating right now?
One final challenge: Stop right now, and think through what you’re doing. Are you procrastinating by reading this article? Or are you doing intentional research to learn how to get work done efficiently?
The secret to working well is assessment, awareness, and prioritization. Learn how to avoid unhealthy procrastination with time management, and instead embrace strategic delays. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that you know what you’re doing, how valuable it is, and when you should be doing it.
If you’ve got that down, you’re in good shape to become an expert time manager—and possibly, an expert procrastinator.