We’ve all had those times that we really should be finishing off a project but instead dream up ways of postponing work on it. You may put off starting on that garden or repair project. In college students put off writing papers or completing assignments. Faculty may put off grading or working on a paper. Harried professionals may put off starting on a presentation that is due.
While procrastination, the act of delaying or postponing something, has a bad rap, there just may be times when it can be productive. That’s not all, well timed procrastination may even elevate your game.
First the bad news. While not working on something may reduce some of your stress (by virtue of the fact that you are not working on what may be perceived as difficult, boring, or tedious), the fact remains it still needs to be done. Waiting until the last moment may cause you to then sleep less, be more stressed by the pressure to finish, and worse, do the job poorly. So there are few redeeming elements to procrastinating on starting a task.
But what about if you procrastinate after you start? Say you have to write an 800 word article on how to get more exercise into your weekly life. You are not sure what the answer is, what you are going to write on, or even where to find out more. So you delay starting. These reasons probably accounts for the majority of reasons why people do not start tasks. Time for two simple pieces of advice.
1.Do it as if you really enjoy the task. One way to deal with procrastination is to start the task you are doing as if you really like it. Yes, pretend you are excited or really like it and commit to doing it for just 10-15 minutes. Even pretending you like a task you are putting off for some time may be enough to change your mental gears and get you to enjoy doing it and do it productively. First discussed by the father of American psychology William James and more recently popularized by the English psychologist Richard Wiseman (see The As If Principle: The Radically New Approach to Changing Your Life) this can be an easy fix. Check out this great animation summarizing the idea on YouTube.
2. Start before you are ready. I first ran into this counsel in a new faculty guide by Robert Boice, but the same recommendation is bandied about the business world with abandon. The simple psychological science behind it is that when you consciously start a project, your mind may nonconsciously continue to work on it even after you stop. Open a document file. Jot down questions that come to mind, places you will look, and some obvious starting points, and leave the file alone. When you return to it, you may be amazed to find you are more productive. So procrastinate AFTER you start.
A recent New York Times article called out a subset of this type of productive procrastination. Procrastibaking — the practice of baking something completely unnecessary, with the intention of avoiding “real” work. Yes, I’ve done that. And more. I am sure you can procrastimow (do one chore avoiding another) or procrasticise (hey a good way to fit more exercise into weekly life). It is probably not a good idea to procrastisurf (the internet variety) as your mind is not really getting a break or a chance to even nonconsciously work on ideas.
If you start and tend to break off to do something else, you may just be more productive and need less time to do it. Many of history’s big names (e.g., Darwin) only worked four or so hours a day. The rest of the time they pottered around and took walks probably giving their mind time to mull on ideas (no Facebook checking back then). Even napping can help. In fact, when we sleep after learning something our memory gets stronger (is consolidated). As explored in a recent Wired piece (by Clive Thompson ), being a moderate procrastinator could give your mind the break it needs to come back rested and more productive. So the right level of procrastination can be productive!
Procrastinating after you start may even be another form of distributed practice (spacing out when you work on something versus doing it all at once) or interleaving (taking turns doing different activities), two cognitive psychology strategies demonstrated to help you learn better. Psychological science also shows that after a while, our focus on a task drops and taking a break actually helps versus soldiering on through with it.
So maybe procrastinating at the right time can elevate your game. Start your task as if you like it and then procrasti-something. Even better, put work on hold and do something active. This will nicely blend the benefits of physical activity and you may find those tasks you avoided may not be so bad after all.