In this post, I can explore procrastination, when/how it hinders productivity, and when/how it might actually help people get more done (for example, for people who work better under pressure)
If you’re like most people, chances are at one point or another you’ve found yourself scrambling to wrap up a project at the eleventh hour, pulling an all-nighter to put the finishing touches on a presentation, or waiting until the last minute to tackle a nagging task.
In other words, you’ve probably had more than a few moments of procrastination in your business (and life!)—and you’re not alone. The vast majority of people procrastinate at least some of the time, especially when it comes to getting work done (according to research, a whopping 80 to 95 percent of college students procrastinate—especially when it comes to completing their coursework). But just because procrastination is extremely common doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a bad rap.
Most people label procrastination as the opposite of productivity. They say procrastination isn’t getting things done, it’s actively avoiding getting things done.
But is that entirely true? Is procrastination really a bad thing? Or can you leverage your tendency to procrastinate to actually get more done?
What is procrastination—and why do people do it?
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Before we jump into whether procrastination is actually that big a deal, let’s talk about what, exactly, procrastination is—and why so many people do it.
“Simply put, procrastination is the act of postponing an action that you need to perform,” says Itamar Shatz, PhD candidate at Cambridge University and author of procrastination-focused website Solving Procrastination. “Essentially, this means that instead of doing something that you need to do, you and up delaying and doing something else instead.”
Procrastination can take a few different forms; maybe you put off doing something you consider “boring” in favor of spending your time doing something “fun” (for example, maybe you spend four hours of your evening playing a new video game instead of working on your taxes that are due in the morning). Or maybe there’s a nagging task you don’t want to do, so you do everything else on your to-do list in order to avoid tackling that task (for example, maybe you spend a day doing lead research, cleaning out your closet, brainstorming logo designs, and rearranging your office furniture—all in an effort to avoid filing your taxes).
Whatever form it takes, procrastination is knowing that you need to do something, but doing something else instead—and there are plenty of reasons you might procrastinate.
One of the most common? You don’t feel equipped to handle the task at hand—and because you don’t feel prepared, the task gives you major anxiety. “One of the most common [reasons] is being anxious about the task that you have to complete because you worry that you won’t be able to do a good job or because it feels so overwhelming that you’re not sure how to start,” says Shatz. For example, maybe you’re avoiding your taxes because all the paperwork feels confusing and overwhelming—so, instead of dealing with the anxiety of not knowing what you’re doing, you avoid the task altogether.
Another reason people procrastinate? Because there’s just other things they’d rather do. “Another common reason for procrastination is impulsivity, which means that instead of controlling yourself and working on the task that you’re supposed to be working on, you end up indulging your impulses and doing other things that you find more appealing, such as browsing social media,” says Shatz. For example, maybe you find filing your taxes mind-numbingly boring—so, instead of dealing with the boredom and pushing through tax time, you waste a few hours on Facebook instead.
Another major reason for procrastination is you just don’t feel like you have it in you to get the task done. “Another reason why people procrastinate is lack of motivation, which can either be due to external reasons, such as the task being boring, or due to internal reasons, such as being tired from having to work too much,” says Shatz.
Whatever your reasoning, procrastination can make it hard to get certain tasks done—which makes most people assume that it’s a complete productivity killer. But is procrastination really that bad—or can you use it to your advantage?
Turns out, procrastination can actually be a good thing—if you know how to make it work for you.
When procrastination can be a good thing
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“There are several ways in which procrastination can actually help you be more productive,” says Shatz. “Procrastination that helps you achieve better outcomes is known as ‘active procrastination,’ in contrast with ‘passive procrastination”, which is detrimental to your progress.”
Active procrastination is procrastinating in a deliberate way that creates a sense of urgency that can actually boost productivity. For people who work well under pressure, active procrastination can actually help them get more tasks done—and enjoy the tasks more as they’re working on them. “[Active procrastination] can help make tasks feel more exciting. For example, waiting until right before the deadline before you start working on a task could make what would otherwise be a boring assignment feel challenging and fun to work on,” says Shatz.
Being deliberate about how you procrastinate can also help you better manage your time—and avoid wasting time on tasks that you’re not equipped to handle in any specific moment. “[Active] procrastination can help you switch between tasks at opportune moments, which can improve your ability to solve problems that you encounter,” says Shatz. “For example, if you can’t figure out how to solve a certain technical issue at work, deciding to come back to it later instead of dealing with it now could be beneficial, since it can help you avoid being stuck and wasting time.”
And the best part? According to research, this deliberate putting-things-off doesn’t actually have any negative impact on work quality. A recent study found that active procrastinators performed similarly in purposive use of time, control of time, self-efficacy and experienced similar outcomes to non-procrastinators.
So, procrastination may get a bad rap—but turns out, depending on the circumstances and how you procrastinate, it may not be such a bad thing. So the question becomes—how can you make procrastination work for you?
How to make procrastination work for you
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One of the key elements to making procrastination work for you is being strategic about how, when, and why you procrastinate. “You can decide to strategically postpone tasks that you need to work on when you have assessed the situation and found that doing so will benefit you directly in some way,” says Shatz.
So, for example, if you’re just coming back from the flu, you might put off an important client call until you’re feeling better so you can bring your A-game to the conversation. Or, if you’ve been burning the candle at both ends and are feeling completely overwhelmed, you might decide to press pause on work for a day and take care of your mental health—that way, you can tackle your to-do list feeling refreshed, rejuvenated, and ready to TCB (take care of business).
Another way to make procrastination work for you? Use the time you’re spending avoiding one task by taking care of another. “Use the strategy of ‘structured procrastination’ in order to make sure that you are getting things done while you are procrastinating,” says Shatz. “This concept, which was proposed by Professor John Perry, entails taking advantage of your tendency to procrastinate in order to motivate yourself to work on things other than whatever it is you initially set out to do…essentially, structured procrastination means that when you get the urge to procrastinate, instead of fighting it you could choose to indulge it, and delay working on your main tasks by doing something else on your to-do list.”
So, for example, if you’ve been meaning to clean up your inbox and respond to a bunch of emails but just can’t find the motivation to do it, work on something else on you need to get done instead, like updating your website or researching potential new clients. The point is, if you don’t feel like tackling a certain task, that’s ok—just make good use of that time and work on something else.
Procrastination can also be super helpful in shining a light on the areas of your business (and life) that may no longer be serving you. Pay attention to the things you find yourself procrastinating. If you’re consistently procrastinating a specific type of task, it might be that it’s no longer a fit for where you are in your business. So, for example, if you used to love writing blog posts but now find it nearly impossible to find the motivation to sit down and write, it could be time to bring a writer onto your team. That way, the blogging gets done—but your time and energy is free to work on the tasks in your business you’re actually excited about.
What to do if/when procrastination becomes a problem
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When you use procrastination to your advantage, it can be a good thing—but that doesn’t mean procrastination is always a benefit. About 20% of people are chronic procrastinators, and if procrastination is your go-to behavior, it’s going to cause your productivity to tank—and make it harder and less enjoyable to get things done.
If you find your tendency to procrastinate is having a negative impact on your business, it’s time to take action. And the first action to take? Set firm deadlines—and then hold yourself accountable for sticking to them.
“One of the best strategies that you can use is to tie each task that you have to a concrete deadline in the near future, that serves as a point in time by which you must complete your work on that task,” says Shatz. “To make sure that the deadline works as intended, try to make it as specific as possible, while also finding some way to hold yourself accountable to it.” So, for example, if you have a report you’ve been putting off, set a deadline for next week—and then send an email to your entire team letting them know it’ll be in their inbox at 9am on deadline day.
If you procrastinate tasks because you think they’re going to drag on too long, you can also block out specific time frames on your calendar. “Another useful strategy for dealing with procrastination is ‘timeboxing,’ which involves allocating specific blocks of time to tasks that you need to perform, in order to prevent yourself from dragging them out unnecessarily,” says Shatz. So, for example, if you’ve been putting off writing your company’s policies and procedures guide because it requires hours of not-so-exciting writing, try blocking out 30-minute chunks on your calendar for a few consecutive days; this will ensure that you slowly but surely make progress on the project—and don’t put it off because you think it’ll take forever.
If you struggle with chronic procrastination, the most important thing you can do is take stock of your behavior and figure out why you’re procrastinating in the first place—and put a plan in place to overcome that “why.” Are you struggling with low energy that makes it hard to get things done? Hit the gym before you go to work to get a burst of feel-good, energy-boosting endorphins. Are you dragging your feet on a specific area of your business? Hire someone who is passionate about that area of your business—and then refocus your attention elsewhere. Is social media getting in the way of you making progress on projects that matter? Download an app that blocks social media access during work hours.
The point is, you get to decide how and when you procrastinate—and if procrastination becomes a problem, it’s up to you to change it.
Wrapping things up
Procrastination gets a bad rap—but if you understand how to use procrastination to your advantage, it can actually help productivity more than it hinders it.
So go ahead—procrastinate every once in a while. Just make sure you do it strategically.