Procrastination has been my constant companion for as long as I can remember.
From the furious, tear-filled, caffeine-fueled term papers of my college days to the mountain of laundry piled in its hamper, mocking me right at this very second, I have succumbed to its mesmerizing pull and postponed handling my responsibilities for as long as possible.
In fact, I started writing this article because I’m procrastinating on the aforementioned laundry, which should have been done a week ago but will now wait just another day (or three) longer.
That’s right — I’m procrastinating by writing about procrastination. Call it irony, call it meta, call it one of the many ways I’ve learned to embrace what’s commonly thought of as a major impediment to any well-adjusted adult who values their agency and ability to contribute to this world.
But procrastination, in and of itself, is not the enemy.
I’m not here to beat it. I’m not here to explain why you should embrace it. I’m here to suggest ways to turn it into a mighty ally.
To begin, I have a question:
Why the obsession with productivity?
I used to think procrastination was a dirty word. Successful people never procrastinate, I imagined, hating my easygoing and lazy nature. They never struggle with productivity. They’re responsible, mature, and always do what they have to do without delay or complaint.
Not feeling adequately productive trapped me in a cycle of negative self-talk, which only made me feel worse and guaranteed I wouldn’t get anything done in favor of burying myself in bed by 7 PM, wallowing in self-pity, never believing I’d be a functional adult.
To those adults playing life on the expert level, I say, keep fighting the good fight. Keep killing it at adulting. Keep being amazing at your routines and your mindset hacks and your 5 AM wake-ups with nary a snooze button in sight. Maybe in my next life, I’ll grow up to be just like you.
In this life, however, I’m worried.
We live in a culture that glorifies workaholism. We cheer for the harried employee working hard for his paycheck, the entrepreneur putting in 12-hour days at the computer in order to manifest her dream. We celebrate non-stop hustle and admire those who never take a break from the daily grind. We always want more from ourselves and from others, rewarding hard work and long hours no matter the cost or result.
On a platform like Medium, over 100,000 people follow the productivity tag. It’s clearly important. And yes, when you have too many obligations to cram into a 24-hour day, it makes sense to pursue greater productivity along with increased efficiency and output.
But why have we inundated ourselves with so many responsibilities in the first place? Shouldn’t we analyze our time and see where we’ve overloaded ourselves with tasks that aren’t actually as important as previously thought, tasks we undertake at the expense of our health and free time?
Are we saying “yes” to the right things, or are we busy for busy’s sake?
The value of chilling out
According to a survey conducted by H&R Block, the average American adult self-reports less than half an hour of free time a week. This is the “pure” leisure time left over after chores, errands, appointments, and other activities that fall outside of work, childcare, and essential daily functions of living.
That doesn’t sound like much.
The importance of rest can’t be understated. Both our bodies and minds need periods of rest. Moreover, we need fun. Life isn’t just a series of items to accomplish and accolades to collect. It’s meant to be enjoyed, and that includes appropriate time for leisure activities as well as the mindless, mundane non-activity.
I am not a productivity hacker. I love sleeping in; alarm clocks do not exist in my ideal world. I enjoy hours of blissful rest doing absolutely nothing. I hate the social expectation to be “on” all the time, and I don’t believe my value as a person lies in how much I can do.
I am also very rarely stressed, and I am grateful to be living and building a life where I don’t need to be. This didn’t happen by chance or luck, though.
Harness the power of procrastination to your advantage by working with it, not against it. By doing so, natural procrastinators have a chance to enjoy life, rather than merely surviving.
1. Stop trying to transform yourself into a productivity machine.
If it wasn’t clear before, let me state it again: procrastinators are still valid people.
Your life is valuable regardless of whether or not you’re producing. You do not exist purely to “get shit done.” You are not a machine fueled by boxes checked off a to-do list. You are a flawed and magnificent human who wants to veg out on your phone sometimes, and that’s okay. Not everything is as pressing in life as a society and other people make it out to be.
The first step is analyzing what you actually need to do. Scrutinize. Be cutthroat. Your needs list is the most exclusive list there is, and the only one that matters. Make sure only the most important and relevant items make the cut.
2. Stop staring at the clock. Move at your own pace.
I found it only made my feelings of inadequacy worse. Damn, I’d think, pausing in the middle of my writing, it’s already been 1 ½ hours? So-and-so would have written well over 1,000 words and be deep in the editing process by now, if not finished.
But you know what? I didn’t pull myself out of the rat race only to join another race.
And don’t tell me life is a marathon, not a sprint. A marathon is still a race in my book. What about those of us who would rather go for a leisurely hike in the mountains? With no time to beat or stats to check or benchmarks by which to measure our worth? Where we have time for snack breaks and photo ops and a wine cooler at any point we deem appropriate?
Don’t stress about your speed, and definitely don’t fall into the pit of comparison. If your responsibility is important enough you’ll get it done exactly when it needs to be done, no earlier, and no later.
3. Respect your deadlines by using a flexible calendar, positive stress, and rewards.
That said, deadlines are important, especially when it comes to doing things that affect other people. A procrastinator can always use more time, but we don’t always use that time wisely. Whether we have a month or a day, the pressure mounts in those final hours. Then we’re pulling out our hair and mainlining coffee to stay awake long enough to complete what we have to do.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Instead, you can use the excitement of small challenges and the pressure of time to create positive stress or eustress. Mild to moderate stressors contribute to eustress, which puts you in the optimal mental zone for task completion and even personal growth.
To do this, structure your calendar with well-cushioned sub-deadlines in advance of your hard deadlines. Combine the tasks you dislike with something enjoyable that keeps you engaged and excited. Associate rewards with reaching mini-milestones before your final deadline; you’ll train yourself to meet these deadlines without all the last-minute chaos.
4. Get inspired.
What if I told you that YouTube and leisure reading falls under the category of good ways to procrastinate? There’s only one caveat: you need to consume the right content and avoid the rabbit hole of distracting, unrelated nonsense.
Find material that pumps you up and helps you shift from a state of inertia to one of meaningful activity and stimulation. Use that external force to get you moving. I like reading memoirs of people I want to emulate, watching inspirational speakers, or browsing random Medium stories that catch my eye, leading me to think critically about what makes them stand out.
If you learn while procrastinating, you gain skills that will assist you in the long run.
5. Do an easier, less demanding task related to your current goal.
Alright, it’s crunch time, but you still don’t feel up to tackling the behemoth that lies ahead. Self-discipline can be difficult to master, but one way to develop it is to split your must-do into palatable, bite-sized chunks that will increase your chances of clearing the plate.
Can’t be bothered to hit the gym? Set a timer for just five minutes and do a little stretching in the comfort of your own home. Then set a timer for another five minutes and get your heart rate up with cardio or bodyweight exercises. At this point, your body will either tell you it’s had enough, or you’ll be pumped for more. It doesn’t matter. Jump into the next set for five minutes. Rinse and repeat.
You can get through five-minute chunks of discomfort for your goals.
6. Do a different, less demanding task completely unrelated to your current goal.
On the other hand, you can procrastinate by tackling an alternate item on your to-do list. It’s still important, right? Otherwise, it shouldn’t be on that list. Go for it. Engage a different part of your mind or body, one that isn’t overworked or worn out.
As mentioned earlier, I decided to write this article instead of doing my laundry. It could very well have been the other way around, but only one of the two tasks allowed me to stay in bed, all snuggly and warm under the covers, so the winner was clear.
In fact, my writing is the more important and difficult of the two, and I’m glad I was able to trick my mind into working on it. I still have clothes and clean bedding, after all. Publishing more content should have been my priority, to begin with.
Indulge your procrastination by trading one task for another. Bonus points if you can swap a lesser priority for a higher one.
7. Less thinking, more doing.
Procrastinators are notorious for being perfectionists and over-thinkers. We may suffer from analysis paralysis, citing our need to consider all possible outcomes and our pursuit of the one and only optimal result as the reason we drag our feet.
This is a thought pattern that inhibits us from taking action.
Instead, we can take some advice from Napoleon Hill and countless business “gurus”: Make your decisions quickly and change your mind slowly. Know what you need to do and stick with it.
Even if you have to take your time getting into action after the choice is made.
Increased productivity is something of a golden egg in today’s culture, but there is still room for procrastinators to succeed. We’re not robots engineered to be useful at all times. We’re not measured by how well we can squeeze something out of every single second of every day. We are human.
To make procrastination work for you, you can:
- Understand you don’t need to be a productivity machine
- Move at your own pace instead of staring at the clock (and comparing yourself to others)
- Respect your deadlines by using a flexible calendar, positive stress, and rewards
- Get inspired by other people or content
- Do an easier, less demanding task related to your current goal
- Do a different, less demanding task completely unrelated to your current goal
- Think less to do more
Equipped with these concepts, even lazy, unreliable, irresponsible procrastinators have a good shot at winning the game of adulthood.
So, let’s get crackin’
…but maybe tomorrow.