We’re taught that procrastination is a terrible trait that we should all strive to overcome.
That sort of thinking is pounded into our brains by school teachers, bosses, and parents. Diligence and foresight are ALWAYS virtuous, procrastination is ALWAYS a character flaw. But I’ve come to appreciate a couple of opportunities born from my procrastination.
Funny thing about all these authority figures in our lives; the ones that are telling us that procrastination is bad are usually the same ones that are dishing out a bunch of artificial deadlines. Maybe what they really don’t like is disobedience?
Let’s take out the deadlines that are placed upon you without your consent for a moment. That just leaves one other type of deadline, the type you consent to, generally the ones you create for yourself.
I try to avoid setting result-oriented goals these days. If you want to know why, I’m writing a little book about it that should be published within the next few months…but I don’t have a deadline, so I’ll just keep you posted- ok?
By avoiding the results-driven goal, I also tend to avoid hard deadlines for specific outcomes. I’m more about processes these days. I want to focus on practices and habits. I want to take action toward my vision for the future and watch what comes of it with a sense of curiosity.
This saves me a lot of needless stress in the form of deadlines and commitments to outcomes. But I still have another type of deadline. The deadlines I deal with now are on very short timescales, and they have to do more with creating habits.
My bedtime should be 11:00 pm, 11:30 at the latest. But I made a commitment to get back on the blogging train. I’ve been so immersed in writing my book that I’ve let my blog languish. So as of today, I will devote, at the very least, 10 minutes of writing every day to my blog.
So it’s 11:40 and here I sit, in my bed, with my laptop illuminating my face while I ought to be asleep.
I allowed distractions to keep me sidetracked today. Some were necessary- I cooked dinner after work, I ate the dinner, I had an important talk with my Love.
Other distractions weren’t so important. Instagram could have waited.
Perhaps there’s some benefit to be had here. If we can let go of the idea that procrastination is a character flaw, maybe we can derive some value in understanding it better.
We’re Probably Hard-wired To Procrastinate
It seems nearly universal. I’ve yet to hear of anyone who can’t relate to the experience of procrastination at some point in their life. The all-night cramming session before a big test is a commonly understood euphemism for this dirty word, procrastination. It’s difficult for me to believe that we’re all a bunch of losers if we all procrastinate to some degree.
I think this may be a valuable evolutionary trait. Energy conservation is important when you’re not sure where your next calories are coming from. By procrastinating certain tasks, we can avoid doing work that may turn out to be less important than originally thought.
There’s an opportunity cost to doing work that ends up being of lesser value. If we were all so diligent so as to immediately start every task we plan for ourselves, it seems we’d be a bunch of busy-bodies doing a lot of potentially low-value work. Procrastination can be a value signal. If we wait until the last minute before starting a task, we usually ask ourselves, “Is this even worth it?”. If the answer is no, then perhaps we just saved ourselves some wasted energy. I don’t think we need to feel bad about that.
If the answer is, “Yes!”. Then we are hard-pressed to get it done at the last minute. This discomfort can also be of value. If we’re willing to stay up past our bedtime to get the work done, we’re telling our subconscious, “Hey, pay attention here! This job is important!”
I started this article, lying in bed late one evening. I’m finishing it a few days later at 11:50 AM, while on a break at work. It’s a lot easier to avoid procrastination when I’ve already informed my subconscious of the value of the task by my accountability to work under the stress of the last-minute deadline! I don’t want to stay up late to get it done again, so finding time to make it a priority is instilled by the discomfort of my first day procrastinating.
Action Builds Confidence. Resistance Builds Strength
Could it be that procrastination is actually is a useful tool?
Putting off the task left me with a choice: I could either shirk the writing altogether or sacrifice some sleep to get it done.
If I decided not to do it, maybe I’d need to examine how important it really is to me. Perhaps the stress of this deadline isn’t worth it if it’s not important enough for me to be willing to fight for it.
If I do fight through the resistance, I strengthen my resolve to do it better, and I get a little confidence boost in knowing I did the harder thing.
Advocating to use procrastination as a tool, as if we want to cultivate it as a habit, is a bit tongue-in-cheek. Of course, I’m not suggesting you try to put everything off to the last minute. But if you do find yourself staring down a task that “should” have been done already, we can at least find the opportunities in it:
1: Cut yourself just a little slack. It could be part of your DNA. Don’t assume you have some character flaw and get all down on yourself. That won’t likely serve you very well, so let that crap go. Guilt is an abusive taskmaster.
2: Use that moment as an opportunity to determine the value of the task. Cultivate some curiosity around why you ended up putting this off to the last minute. “Know Thyself” is one of the greatest pieces of advice ever written. Here’s a chance to get to know a little better what you truly value.
3: If it’s worth doing, and you fight to get it done, take pride in your actions. Don’t take away your own victory just because it wasn’t done earlier. You did it. Take credit for that.
4: Use the pain and discomfort you’re experiencing as motivation to plan better for the next time. Everything is a learning experience if you approach it as one.
If you want to avoid the pitfalls of procrastination, the most effective tool I’ve found is a stopwatch and a daily practice surrounding the task to be completed.
- Pick a time (the earlier in your day, the better) to work on the task.
- Commit to a minimum time that is ridiculously achievable (my favorite number is 10 minutes – long enough to do something, short enough to squeeze into almost any day’s schedule, and utterly non-intimidating).
- See how many days in a row you can stay committed to the 10-minute minimum. Think of it as a game and track your high score.
- And if you miss a day, or find yourself putting it off, forgive yourself and turn your energy toward curiosity.
Life is not a win or lose proposition, it’s win or learn. Procrastination is an opportunity for you to learn something about yourself – if you approach it that way.