Stop Fighting Your Procrastination and Learn to Use It
Most people who know me would say I’m a pretty productive guy. Every morning I wake up early and write for an hour on my blog. Then I meditate for 20 or 30 minutes and get a workout in — all before I start my day job at 9:00.
What most people don’t see is that I’m also a pretty big procrastinator. I routinely waste an hour here and there scrolling through Twitter or fiddling with the design of my website.
But I manage to stay productive despite my procrastiantion. And the secret is, I don’t fight my procrastination it or try to avoid it—I embrace it.
In my experience, procrastination is inevitable. It’s part of human nature to want diversity and novelty in our work—and to resist what’s difficult and taxing. Unfortunately, the emotional side effects of fighting our procrastiantion usually outweigh the benefits.
If you’ve been struggling with procrastination for a long time without much success, let me suggest an alternative approach. A way that’s not based on more discipline, hard work, or willpower. But instead, an approach that takes advantage of some clever psychology to help you be productive and get things done despite your tendency to procrastinate.
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.
— Jon Kabbat-Zinn
Ditch the negative self-talk
For most people who struggle to get things done, it’s not the initial procrastination that’s the problem — it’s all the beating themselves up for being a procrastinator that does them in.
Most procrastinators have gotten into the habit of talking smack to themselves any time they feel the urge to procrastinate:
- God, why do you have to be such a procrastinator all the time!
- Why can’t I just be more like Tom and get things done when I should…
- I’m just not disciplined enough to write a book.
The problem with this all this negative self-talk around procrastination is that it adds a second layer of negative emotion on top of the initial resistance to doing the work.
Initially you may have felt a little nervous about how much you had to do by the end of the day. But then add a few self-critical, pessimistic jabs of negative self-talk, and now you feel guilty, hopeless, and angry at yourself too.
In my job as a psychologist, I work with a lot of chronic procrastinators. And every time I help people to notice and then start to eliminate their habit of negative self-talk around procrastination, their ability to get things done despite procrastination skyrockets.
When you feel the urge to procrastinate, follow these three steps:
- Validate the fact that procrastination is normal and doesn’t mean you can’t get things done.
- Identify your overly-negative self-talk about yourself, your work, and your procrastination. Write it down.
- Modify your self-talk to be more realistic: Yes, I often procrastinate, but I also manage to get a lot done anyway. I may not be a very disciplined writer yet, but I just started and I will likely improve over time.
When you feel the urge to procrastinate, choose compassion over judgment.
The tendency to procrastinate isn’t a virus or defect in your genetic code. It’s an expression of your mind’s natural desire for efficiency and novelty.
For hundreds of thousands of years, we evolved in an environment where conserving energy and pursuing novel things was highly advantageous to our survival. But in modern times, whether you exert an extra 10% of your energy today probably doesn’t mean you’re any more likely to get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger tomorrow.
You know putting in an extra hours worth of work on your presentation is worth the energy tradeoff, but your lizard brain resists because our biology hasn’t had time evolve to match the rapid changes in our environments over the last couple thousand years.
If you want to avoid big-time procrastination, give yourself permission to do more small-time procrastination.
All that’s to say, the urge to procrastinate isn’t a bad thing or a sign of weakness. It’s just your mind doing what it’s been programmed by evolution to do.
If you proactively build in more time to procrastinate on purpose, you’ll find that your mind will stop insisting on procrastinating during really inconvenient times.
For example, say your goal is to practice piano for an hour every evening. Instead of insisting on practicing piano for 60 minutes straight, plan ahead of time to practice for 30 minutes then give yourself permission to procrastinate for 10 minutes before getting back to your final 30 minutes of practice.
Find ways to creatively build in intentional procrastination to your work and you’ll get ambushed by it far less often.
Cultivate work-hobby synergies
When you procrastinate on something and then immediately beat yourself up for it, you end up feeling pretty bad. As a result, you’ll tend to procrastinate by doing things that immediately make you feel better in order to relieve the shame and guilt that you feel: Mindlessly losing yourself in Facebook, playing video games, watching more Netflix, etc.
Like junk food, these are low-quality forms of procrastination because even thought they “taste” good in the short-term, they have no actual benefit (and probably some downsides).
But what if you had healthier forms of procrastination?
What if you had outlets for procrastination that actually made you more productive? What if the act of procrastinating actually helped you get more done?
Sounds like a fairy tale, but it’s actually a completely reasonable strategy that I employ almost every day.
When your hobbies indirectly benefit your work, it’s impossible to really procrastinate.
One of my hobbies is graphic design and building websites. I love fiddling with fonts, browsing interesting color palettes, and sketching out wire-frames for new website layouts. Sure it’s nerdy, but I genuinely love it. I also work and write online quite a bit. Besides a personal blog, I have a newsletter, several podcasts, and a few other online side projects that all benefit from good design.
This means that me deliberately procrastination on my writing, for example, by playing around with a new layout for my website can actually be productive in the long run.
When I do finally decide to re-do my website, all those 20 minutes procrastination sessions led me to having a my new website design ready to go.
Ask yourself: Do I have any interest or hobbies I could modify slightly so that they actually benefit my work?
- If you have to give a lot of presentations and speeches at work, could you get into vlogging as a fun side project that also would help with your public speaking? Now procrastinating with YouTube is actually helping your career.
- If you are trying to start a blog and become a writer, could you re-jigger your social media feeds to only include other writers you admire and people who give helpful advice about writing? Now procrastinating on Twitter is helping you learn more about writing.
If you cultivate interests that benefit your work, it’s impossible to really procrastinate because even your procrastination is making you productive.
All you need to know
The key to overcoming major procrastination and productivity loss is to stop fighting the urge to procrastinate and allow yourself to do it in small, strategic ways.
Ditch the negative self-talk. Hard work is hard enough without the shame and guilt that comes from overly-judgmental self-talk.
Procrastinate intentionally. Allow yourself to procrastinate in a structured, proactive way.
Cultivate work-hobby synergies. If your hobbies benefit your work, it’s hard to ever truly procrastinate.