Most of us were taught that procrastination is not an effective strategy for getting things done. The common belief is that we shouldn’t put off assignments or projects until the last minute. The implication is that completing a task at the last second would mean being doomed to stress, chaos, and maybe even total failure if things didn’t come together as planned. But is it possible that procrastination may actually be an efficient strategy for some?
Some individuals are happier when completing a task immediately because they derive satisfaction from completing the task. As soon as the task has been completed, they feel relieved and are able to easily let it go. We’ll call these people “non-procrastinators.”
In contrast, procrastinators don’t experience that relief in the same way. They are perfectionists and therefore, even once the task is complete, they continue to worry, ruminate, and work towards improving it. Because of this struggle, they only feel satisfied once they have achieved closure through meeting the deadline. If a project is due on Friday and they expect it to take about a day or two to complete, they prefer to begin working on the project on Wednesday and meet the deadline, rather than starting it sooner and still worrying about it for just as long.
Procrastinators also work more efficiently under time pressure. Therefore, they tend to get more done under less time. You may wonder, why not just begin the project on Monday and get it done faster? For people who are natural procrastinators, if they were to begin work on Monday, it’s likely that the project would still stretch out until Friday as they continue tweaking and correcting the work until the deadline. For procrastinators, it can actually be more productive to wait until Wednesday to begin the project.
We know now that procrastination can actually work more effectively and efficiently for some people depending their style of accomplishing goals.
WHY WE PROCRASTINATE
It’s a fact that people procrastinate, but there can be many reasons why they do it. A tendency to procrastinate is often linked to perfectionism. People who are perfectionists often procrastinate tasks if they think that they can’t do it perfectly or out of a fear of failing.
One thing that you can often observe is that people tend to avoid doing tasks that don’t have immediate positive results, i.e. those with delayed gratification. People like to see instant results and gratification, which is why we usually don’t procrastinate tasks like eating as that makes you instantly happier.
This is often explained by the fact that whenever we decide to do something, two parts in our brains are activated: the neocortex and the limbic system. The neocortex is a bit like the angel sitting on your shoulder who tells you that you should do something because it will be good for you in the long run and the benefits outweigh the costs. However, the good intentions of the neocortex are often thwarted by the limbic system that says, “You really don’t have to do it now, why not watch this cat video instead?” And often the limbic system wins, because we like instant gratifications more than delayed ones.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE ON PROCRASTINATION
When our teachers warned us against procrastinating, they assumed that all procrastination is detrimental and leads to failure. However, some people are inherently inclined to complete work immediately prior to the deadline and are just as successful in doing so. In fact, the research I have conducted in the field of neuroscience has shown that people who procrastinate can be highly effective. It’s important to distinguish between ineffective procrastination, which causes missed deadlines and doesn’t result in work getting done, versus effective procrastination in which the work happens close to the deadline without sacrificing quality.
If you feel naturally oriented towards procrastinating, you can choose to stop beating yourself up about it and instead actively and mindfully practice effective procrastination. Rather than struggling to change your natural inclination, focus on learning effective procrastination. Below are what I find to be the best techniques to practice effective procrastination:
Use “structured procrastination” to your advantage. Also called “active procrastination” this phrase means that if you’re avoiding one thing on your to-due list, you use that time to accomplish something less imminent on the list instead. For example, if you are procrastinating on finishing your paperwork, rather than using that time to look at Facebook, you could make several phone calls, clean the dishes, or return emails and check those off the list.
Find ways to create external deadlines or consequences. Involving other people can be a good way to keep yourself accountable. Create a deadline by letting another person know that you’ll give them something by a specific date. As an example, if you’re procrastinating on tidying up your guest room, inviting a friend for dinner will motivate you to accomplish this task before your friend arrives.
Learn the skill of time allocation. Get good at knowing how much time to allocate to get certain things done. If it only takes twenty minutes to accomplish a certain task, then there’s no harm in waiting until half an hour before the deadline to do it. If there’s a larger project that may take several hours but the typical advice of working on it for an hour a day just doesn’t fit your work style, then you will need to accurately assess how many hours are needed and then block off that time in one or two marathon sessions to get the work done.
Accept that this strategy works for you. Don’t feel guilty for procrastinating—there is nothing inherently bad about it. Make procrastination a deliberate choice for yourself, call it a work style instead of a bad habit, and create systems around it that feel right for you. Beating yourself up for having a different work style is not going to help you be more efficient or successful. Accept that you are an effective procrastinator and treat yourself with kindness and self-compassion. Remember, that If you’re finding yourself missing deadlines then it’s no longer effective procrastination.
Know when it’s time to let go. Some items on your to-due list simply may not be that important to accomplish. If you have been putting off dealing with a particular item on your list for weeks or even months and no negative repercussions have occurred, it may be time to take it off the list entirely. It’s also possible that this item still needs to happen but you’re not the person who should do it, in which case you can find someone to delegate to so that it will get done.
Use passive preparation. There are a lot of ways to work on a task or project, and not all of them seem obvious to others. You can passively prepare a paper or a project in several ways: read articles about it, think about it creatively, talk with people about it, write down thoughts about it, or create a timeline. This approach means that you can allow yourself to explore ideas without the pressure of needing to get the actual product done just yet.
Get better at prioritizing tasks. One challenge for procrastinators is to decide whether a task is urgent or can wait. Identifying the true degree of urgency for each new task will help you order your to-due list so that “structured procrastination” can be seamless.
Reward yourself when you’ve accomplished a task. Treat yourself when you’ve accomplished tasks by their deadline. Give yourself permission to celebrate, eat your favorite dessert, watch a movie, or buy yourself something you’ve been wanting. This will positively reinforce your behaviors in the long run.
BENEFITS OF PROCRASTINATION
But there are also real benefits to (moderate) procrastination. Procrastinating helps you get more done.
You can actually get more done when you procrastinate. This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s true. So, while you might procrastinate doing that one big task, you might actually manage to finish the other tasks on your to-do-list instead.
- WORK MORE EFFECTIVELY
- Many procrastinators work extremely efficiently as they’re used to work under time pressure. In fact, a little bit of time pressure can help motivate you. Procrastinators will find the best way to finish a task on time and focus on the most important things instead of getting lost in the details.
- MAKE BETTER DECISIONS
- Delaying finishing a task can help you make better decisions. Often when you’re focusing too much on something you lose perspective, it’s like when you read a word in quick succession it will lose its meaning. By stopping in the middle of the task, you can take that time to reevaluate your work. More often than not, new and often better ideas might come to you.
- BECOME MORE CREATIVE
- This is why procrastination is also often linked to increased creativity. Research I conducted in 2020 found that procrastinators are more creative – or that creative people are procrastinators, the direction of that interrelation is still unclear. Fact is that procrastination facilitates creative thinking.
4 WAYS TO PROCRASTINATE MORE EFFECTIVELY
Here are four tips on how to procrastinate more effectively and be productive:
- Do it without guilt – The first rule of effective procrastination is to do it without guilt. Instead of feeling bad and constantly worrying about the tasks that you should be doing, actively keep that out of your mind. When you constantly think about the thing that you’re procrastinating, you actually put even more pressure on yourself, and you might actually decrease the chances of ever starting that task. Enjoy the time and do what you actually want to do and enjoy doing.
- Do something else – Procrastinating doesn’t mean not doing anything. Sure, you could just take a nap or watch that one episode (or 10) of your TV show on Netflix, but you could also do something productive. For example, when you’re procrastinating writing a report, you could do research on it as a procrastination strategy.
- Know your energy levels – You can also procrastinate effectively by knowing your daily energy levels. For example, most people feel tired right after lunch. During that time, it is better not to do a task that needs a lot of brainpower, do a task that you can do without having to think too much.
- Backwards to-do-list – You won’t quit procrastinating if you reduce your work load drastically. Most procrastinators are actually motivated to do something because they’re aware that there is an even bigger, ‘scarier’ task that they need to do. So, it’s better to have a lot of tasks on your to-do-list. The trick is to include every, even the most trivial, task in your list. As per usual, the important ones are at the top and the less important ones at the bottom. Now work through your list – but from the bottom up.
PROCRASTINATION IS WHAT YOU MAKE IT
Procrastination can be a destructive force or a productive one—it’s all about understanding your style and learning the right tools. So, if you’re a procrastinator stop judging yourself for it and start doing it effectively.