Have you ever noticed how weirdly productive procrastination is?
You really don’t want to do this one thing so you opt for ten others while you avoid and try to work up the mental energy required to focus on what you should be doing in the first place.
The problem is, the tasks we usually gravitate towards in our moments of procrastination tend to be counterproductive. Binge watching or overeating or too many open tabs in the browser. Sound familiar?
It’s like fighting two losing battles at the same time, because we already know that whatever it is we’re avoiding, we’re going to have to do in the end, which makes it so that the things that we do while we avoid are riddled with anxiety — we don’t enjoy the distractions, and we don’t accomplish what we set out to do.
But there’s another way; instead of fighting the procrastination habit, you could opt to work with it.
Let’s face it, there are some tasks we’re always going to need to mentally prepare for, for one reason or another. Maybe it’s writing for you, or research, or doing the dishes but more often than not, it’s something you’ve tried or thought about doing before, and you’re procrastinating because you already know that you won’t enjoy the task, or maybe you don’t feel like you have the skills required. The point is, you can predict your procrastination. You know exactly what triggers it, and you feel helpless against it.
Those triggers typically fall into one of four camps: expectancy, value, time or impulsivity, says Alexander Rozental, a procrastination researcher and a clinical psychologist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. In other words, “People procrastinate because of a lack of value [associated with the task]; because they expect that they’re not going to achieve the value they’re trying to achieve; because the value is too far from you in terms of time; or because you’re very impulsive as a person,” Rozental says.
Enter “structured procrastination”
Now that we know that we can see it coming, we can choose to plan for it.
Not plan to avoid or eliminate it but rather plan to make it more productive. There’s something you need to do and you’re not looking forward to it, so you give yourself a few hours to procrastinate before you really have to get down to work, and fill that time with other tasks that you need to get done but aren’t as stressful to think about or execute. This way, you don’t end up turning to the nearest unplanned, unhelpful option for a distraction.
Stanford professor John Perry calls this “structured procrastination.” Your to-do list usually has a certain structure: urgent stuff at the very top, and less urgent but still worthwhile stuff at the bottom. When you procrastinate productively, you knock out worthwhile tasks while you put off the urgent ones.
Take it further with “Eureka Moments”
You’ve heard of Eureka moments, right?
Isaac Newton getting the idea for his theory of universal gravitation after watching an apple fall from a tree during a leisurely walk on a farm, or Archimedes figuring out how to calculate the volume of an irregular object by observing the amount of water displaced by his own body during a bath.
You’ve also probably had a few of your own Eureka moments where you perhaps remember the exact location of an object you were previously looking for while attending to an unrelated activity, or having an inexplicable flash of genius/ creativity when you weren’t actively trying.
To help explain this phenomenon, a team led by Benjamin Baird and Jonathan Schooler, psychologists at the University of California found evidence suggesting that creativity is fostered by tasks that allow the mind to wander.
The researchers presented 145 undergraduate students with two ‘unusual uses’ tasks that gave them two minutes to list as many uses as possible for everyday objects such as toothpicks, clothes hangers and bricks.
After the two minutes were over, participants were given a 12-minute break, during which they rested, undertook a demanding memory activity that required their full attention or engaged in an undemanding reaction-time activity known to elicit mind-wandering. A fourth group of students had no break. All participants were then given four unusual-uses tasks, including the two that they had completed earlier.
Those students who had done the undemanding activity performed an average of 41% better at the repeated tasks the second time they tried them. By contrast, students in the other three groups showed no improvement.
A wandering mind gives you time to think about an important task without committing to actually doing it. The detachment and lack of pressure also give you space to think and be creative.
The next time you have an assignment that is so daunting it’s making you procrastinate, consider scheduling it between mindless tasks with low cognitive requirements such as folding your laundry or color coding your books and maybe you’ll get the breakthrough you need, or at least get your procrastination fix while also checking worthwhile tasks off your to-do list.