Most people who know me would say that 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 usually get a workout in — all before I start my day job at 9:00 am.
What most people don’t see is that I’m also a pretty big procrastinator. I routinely waste time here and there on Twitter or chatting with buddies in Slack, for example. The trick is, I never let procrastination get me down for long because instead of fighting it, I embrace it.
Like the saying goes:
‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.’
If you’ve been struggling with procrastination for a long time without much success, let me suggest another way. A way that’s not based on more discipline, hard work, or willpower. Instead, an approach that takes advantage of some clever psychology to help you be productive and get things done despite your tendency to procrastinate.
1. 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 gets them.
Essentially, they’ve 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 about 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 change their habit of negative self-talk around procrastination, their ability to get things done 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.
If you’d like to learn more about changing your negatice self-talk, read this guide to cognitive restructuring.
2. Schedule Your Procrastination
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.
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. Don’t fight this natural tendency — roll with it.
If you proactively build in more time to procrastinate on purpose and in small ways, you’ll find that your mind will stop insisting on procrastinating during really inconvenient times (like when you’re working on big and important things).
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 end up ambushed by it far less frequently.
3. Cultivate Interests That Synergise With Your Work
When we procrastinate on something and then immediately beat ourselves up for it, we end up feeling pretty bad. As a result, we tend to procrastinate by doing things that immediately make us feel better in order to relieve the shame and guilt that we feel: Mindlessly losing ourselves 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.
But what if you had healthier forms of procrastination? What if you had outlets for procrastination that actually made you more productive in the long-run? 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.
If you cultivate interests that benefit your work, it’s impossible to really procrastinate because even your procrastination is making you productive.
For example: one of my hobbies is graphic design and building websites. I love fiddling with fonts, browsing interesting color palettes, and sketching out wireframes for new website layouts. 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 procrastinating on my writing by playing around with a new layout for my website, for example, 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 my new design ready to go. Which means instead of spending a whole week’s worth of time and energy setting up the site (and losing out on writing time), it takes an hour or two and then I can get back to writing.
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?
- If you are trying to start a blog and become a writer, could you re-jig your social media feeds to only include other writers you admire and people who give helpful advice about writing?
All You Need to Know
The key to overcoming major procrastination and productivity loss is to stop fighting the urge to procrastinate 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.
- Schedule your procrastination. Validate that the urge to procrastinate is normal and natural, then allow yourself to do it in a structured, proactive way.
- Cultivate work-hobby synergies. If your hobbies benefit your work, it’s impossible to truly procrastinate.
Just because you feel the urge to procrastinate doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. And beating yourself up for it is only going to sabotage your productivity more in the long run.
Embrace your procrastination and watch your productivity soar.
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