Stories

The Power of Procrastination

By Joshua Danton Boyd July 16th, 2014

Dr. Piers Steel, a psychologist who has spent a lot of time looking at motivation, surveyed over 24,000 people and found that 95 percent of respondents admitted to procrastinating, while 25 percent identified themselves as chronic procrastinators.

We’ve all had that daunting feeling when an unwanted task looms over our heads, but as soon as we remind ourselves to do it, we suddenly get the urge to learn how to do origami (or clean the microwave, or vacuum the bathroom rug). Then making paper swans becomes the more important task we need to complete.

According to the survey results, workers now spend a quarter of the work day putting off work. And a big reason for this is because our jobs have become more flexible. Apparently, it’s never been so easy to rationalize procrastination. However, the trick is learning how to use it to your advantage.

Why do we procrastinate?

Procrastination is a matter of self-regulation. It’s not about keeping time or forgetting deadlines. They may have the same outcome, but they’re entirely different beasts.

When we put something off in favor of another task, we make an active choice to switch our attention. However, when we look back and realize we haven’t accomplished anything, it almost feels like it wasn’t a conscious choice.

Procrastination relies on our ability to lie to ourselves. We know when something is urgent, yet within 20 minutes we convince ourselves to focus on another task.

A study about the working habits of Ph.D. students found four main reasons for procrastination:

  1. Overestimation of time available to complete tasks
  2. Overestimation of how motivated they’ll be to complete tasks in the future
  3. Underestimation of the time needed to complete tasks
  4. The belief students need to be in the right frame of mind to work (for example: “I work better under pressure”)

All four reasons are probably familiar excuses regardless of whether you’re a student or not. Simply put, when we have to work, we turn into idiots. Next time you’re ready to curse yourself for not getting any work done two days before a deadline, remember that.

Stopping procrastination may not be a realistic goal, but manipulating it to your advantage is certainly possible. There’s even science behind it.

Putting procrastination to work

Raymond Chandler had a solution to turn procrastination against itself. When he was struggling to write, he held himself to two rules:

  1. You don’t have to write.
  2. You can’t do anything else.

Policing yourself is vital when trying to benefit from procrastination. Chandler sits down to write but quickly finds himself wanting to clear out the garden shed instead. However, since that would break a rule, his only choice is to go back to writing. Social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister called this the “Nothing Alternative” strategy. While it may be intriguing, there’s another solution that can work much better.

Philosopher John Perry wrote about a phenomenon he called “structured procrastination.” A quotation from humorist Robert Benchley nicely sums up the logic behind it: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”

Perry has expanded this simple truth into a process that helps you prioritize valuable tasks. To do so, you must place the most important responsibilities at the top of your list and a few worthwhile jobs in the middle. When you try to tackle your list, you’ll take on anything worthwhile to avoid doing the most important tasks. For example, Perry cited blowing off grading papers to spend time with his students as one way structured procrastination worked in his favor. His grades might have been delayed, but the time was better spent with his students.

Although, since this process depends on not doing the important things, how can it be successful?

According to Perry, to solve this fallacy, the important tasks on your list must have two characteristics:

  1. They appear to have clear deadlines, but in reality, they don’t.
  2. They seem important, but in fact, they’re not.

We encounter these tasks all the time. Perry gave another example about an essay he delayed for 11 months. He accomplished other academic work instead of completing his assignment, and when enough guilt finally took over, he contacted the editor and discovered other writers hadn’t completed their essays either.

Procrastinating productively is really just a matter of putting your tasks in the right order. So examine your to-do list. See if you can find other meaningful jobs to add to the docket.

Of course, if you can’t get yourself to do it, we understand. There are a lot of origami videos out there you could be watching right now instead.

Image by Ariana Escobar
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