How to Procrastinate the Smart Way

Wait – a guide on how to procrastinate?

Yep, you read that right. Procrastination doesn’t always have to mean checking Facebook or rearranging your desk for the fiftieth time. Almost all of us have the tendency to procrastinate from time to time, but the most successful among us have learned to harness that powerful instinct for good.

It’s possible to be smart about your procrastination instincts, and use the pressure of “doing anything but that” to tackle smaller items on your list, or take a true break and clear your mind for another shot at the problem.

Regular procrastination can definitely be a huge problem in work and life – and it can be a big red flag to employers. But is procrastination always a bad thing?

Why we procrastinate

There are multiple reasons why we put off important things. Often it’s because we’re facing a task that seems too overwhelming or difficult, that requires a huge creative investment, or that’s frightening to us in some way (because we’re afraid of failure, or of success).

Other times we procrastinate because we need to make a hard decision, or we don’t know how to address a big problem. We’ve come up against a tricky Gordian Knot, and it’s impossible to figure out how to untie it.

Either way, our brains have become convinced that this particular task will be a horrible, miserable experience that should be avoided at all costs. Essentially, your flight or fight mode has been triggered and you’ve subconsciously chosen “flight.”

One way to reframe that instinct is to reward yourself for getting things done on time, rather than beating yourself up over finishing something late. All the latter accomplishes is making you feel miserable, and convinces your brain that you were right to have avoided the task in the first place.

If on the other hand, your brain starts to associate accomplishing hard tasks with little rewards, like a piece of nice chocolate, five minutes on Pinterest, or a few minutes working on a project just for fun, you’ll be more inclined to skip procrastination next time around.

(By the way, if you’re avoiding a writing project you should try Written? Kitten!, a web app that rewards you with a photo of an adorable kitten every time you type 100 words. Full disclosure: this entire post was written in Written? Kitten!.)

Efficient procrastination: tackle something else on your to-do list.

There are good types of procrastination, and bad types of procrastination. When you’re filling your mind with distractions in the form of cat videos, Facebook, and gossip around the water cooler, procrastinating isn’t doing you any good. Your to-do list isn’t getting any smaller, and the main thing you’re avoiding will still be waiting for you when you get back.

One of the reasons we humans turn to social media sites, mindless games, or to check our email a hundred times is because it gives us little bursts of endorphins to see that we have a new message, or that our third cousin liked our latest post.

Instead of going that route, seek out a similar feeling from checking little things off your to-do list. Give yourself permission to schedule a haircut, email the babysitter, and RSVP to your friend’s party before turning back to the task at hand. They’re all things you needed to do anyway, and knocking three little items off your to-do list feels great.

Thoughtful procrastination: take a (real) break.

Our brains need downtime in order to solve problems. That’s why we need plenty of sleep, and to take frequent breaks. Otherwise, we never get the creative breathing room we need to make breakthroughs.

You may think you’re taking a break when you jump on over to Twitter, but you’re really only cluttering your mind with distractions. Next time you sit down in front of your main problem, you still won’t know how to solve it, because all you did while you were away from your desk was to numb your brain.

If you’re procrastinating because you’re up against a tricky problem, use that time to give your brain a break. Take a walk in the park and leave your phone at your desk (but take a notebook in case inspiration strikes!). Read a chapter of a good book. Call someone you love talking to to say hello. Go play fetch with your dog.

Sure, you’re technically procrastinating, but you’re also giving your subconscious a chance to nibble away on that problem. Chances are you’ll come back refreshed and ready to tackle it.

Not quite ready to tackle that big project? Read more about the science of procrastination on Quartz, or take the Procrastination Test at Psychology Today.

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