Procrastination is bad, right?
Well, not quite. If you break up a project, you're likely to find most projects have five distinct sections. To get to the end of the project, you're going to need a form of managed procrastination.
But how do you go about this form of procrastination? And why is it seemingly better to keep you focused? Let's find out shall we?
You can listen to the audio too.
Imagine you're sitting down late at night to get ready for your presentation the next day. And you find your slide deck is empty.
That's precisely what happened to me when I was conducting a workshop in California many years ago.
Usually, I'm very thorough, making sure everything is in order at least four-five days before we board the flight. This time, however, I'd somehow put off what I needed to do, confident I'd have enough time when I got to the U.S.
When preparing for workshops, I go through my slides anywhere between 10-15 times, and complete full run-throughs at least thrice, on the day before. So how come the slide deck was empty? Our workshops usually span three days or more, and the slides for Day One were just as they needed to be. But who looks for Day Two slides on Day One? Not me, at least.
Which brings us right to the evening of the first day, when I sat down to prepare myself for Day Two. That's when I realised many of the slides had incomplete information.
Procrastination doesn't have a good rap.
And rightly so. Just because we've pushed something out into the future, doesn't mean it's gone away. In fact, there's a good chance that unfinished task is a mega-energy drainer.
If I have to go for a medical checkup, and I can see that white slip in front of me, it bugs me. If you need to finish writing that chapter in your book, you spend enormous amounts of energy just pushing that task out on a future to-do list. However, there are times when procrastination can be good for you.
In this series, we'll cover three points:
1) How Deadline-Based-Procrastination Helps Formulate Better Thoughts
2) How Procrastination Can Help Manage the Email Deluge
3) Why Procrastination Can Be Good For Energy Levels (And When It’s Bad)
1) How Deadline-Based-Procrastination Helps Formulate Better Thoughts
In 1966, there was a study on the Ju/’hoansi bushmen that wander around the borderlands between Namibia and Botswana.
It found that the bushmen only worked seventeen hours a week, on average, to find their food. An additional nineteen hours were spent on domestic chores and activities. In all, their 36-hour week might seem pretty excessive when you consider that most working people aim for a 40 hour week.
However, our week is a lot longer
Even back in 1966, a comparable week in the United States was roughly double. 40 hours were spent at work, and about thirty-six, on average, on domestic labour. Today, adults employed full time in the U.S. report working an average of between 47-50 hours per week. That's more than a whole working day as compared with 1966.
All of this extra work only means one thing
The working brain of the Ju/’hoansi and the busy business owner in Beijing, is similar. But the demands on energy, distractions and travel have made procrastination an imposing part of our lives. Even if you were to go back just to my father's time. He ran a business, a secretarial college and while he put in a long workday from 8 am to 8 pm, he didn't have Facebook or a mobile phone.
Once he got on his train at night, he'd be eating roasted peanuts and nodding off as he made his way back home. In comparison, we have to battle all sorts of crazy stuff, just to get through the day. It's inevitable that as our energy depletes, our procrastination levels skyrocket.
Even so, procrastination can be a great ally when it comes to formulating thoughts
Take this article for instance. I write most of my articles within 5000bc, right in the forum, on forum software. Which means every member of 5000bc can see the progress of the article. This article, for example, started on 19th September. It was just an announcement of the article.
By the 20th, I'd only managed the three topics I was going to cover. As the 21st makes its way to another sunset, four paragraphs are in place. And then there's a “to be continued” added to the unfinished piece. If you look at this form of article writing, you can either consider it to be procrastination or progress.
I think it's procrastination and it's good when you're trying to maximise your creativity
Creative work, according to Hungarian psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, there are five steps to getting to a sort of finish point. They are:
When you and I look at that list, there are five whole levels of procrastination
Tiny tasks would blur those five elements together in a matter of seconds. However, the moment you have to write an article, compose some music, or even put that plant you bought last week, it all requires five chunky steps. Trying to rush a project of some complexity through those stages, is likely to be counterproductive.
Even so, every stage of the procrastination process needs to be long enough, but not so long that you completely forget about it. The bigger the project, the more likely you're to push it to the back burner and then it just lies in a corner, unfinished.
Properly managed procrastination seems paradoxical
Procrastination by its very nature is putting off something for the future because you don't want to deal with it right now. Managed procrastination, however, is where you do a tiny bit, then put off the rest for just a little while. In some cases, you may start on the task in the morning, and continue your task a lot later in the day.
For other tasks, it might be a lot better to hit the pause button until the next day. While you're seemingly stuck on the pause button, your brain will come up with different angles to solve the problem. If you're writing an article, you'll have different examples, possibly even a different way of expressing yourself.
The more significant the task, the more the complexity
Writing an article might be no big deal for one person, but for you, it might mean a lot of sweat, tears and a bit of beer too. Even so, professionals tend to have some system that will take them through preparation, incubation, and insight. The job gets done as a first draft, then you come back to evaluation and for some elaboration.
The more we find ourselves working through these steps, the greater the procrastination. However, it's a managed form instead of simply putting things off, like we usually do.
Distraction has a bad name and rightly so
We're off on a tangent when we should be working on our project. Unlike the Ju/’hoansi Bushmen, we have too much to cope with all at once. When you accept distraction as part of your day to day life, procrastination becomes even more vital. You realise that once you're done with a pre-designated chunk of work, you're going to reward yourself with some distraction, so your brain doesn't slip into a downward spiral.
Hours later, or even a few days later, you're fresh, filled with a range of ideas and examples (that you no doubt jotted down) and the very same project has a raw new energy. The distraction, unfortunate as it may seem, is not quite so ugly if you plan for it in advance.
In previous versions of the Article Writing Course, I'd get clients to write an article every day
Then around 2016, someone mentioned that she was taking 3-4 hours to finish the article every night. I was appalled at the idea, because in my mind, clients should be taking between 60-90 minutes at best, to write an article.
If you spend 3-4 hours, you merely get exhausted, and the material isn't 300%, and often a lot worse than if you're not so exhausted. Hence I went about re-engineering the Article Writing Course. On Monday, the clients only write topics. On Tuesday they outline the topics.
As the week winds its way to Wednesday, they chip away at the article using the system of procrastination. Instead of writing five articles a week, they may end up with just two. However, those articles are of a higher quality, and the student isn't dreading the following week as much. Make no mistake; learning a new skill or working on a project with twists and turns, is never going to be easy.
However, slaving your way through it is a silly strategy. Going through several stages makes more much more productive, more valuable content and finished projects.
2) How to use procrastination to deal with the deluge of e-mail.
On Sunday nights, I sit down to go through my e-mail.
That way when I wake up on Monday, I expect my inbox to be empty or at least sparse.
Hah, I should be so lucky.
No matter how much you and I deal with e-mail, there's always more coming through. And easily the biggest problem with e-mail is that it drains you. If you're doubtful about this, start up a new e-mail account and look at the vast blankness of that account. Not a single e-mail sits in your inbox in that new account. And if you sneak back later, maybe 20 minutes later, there's still nothing to be seen.
Now if only you could make your current inbox so neat and tidy, eh?
Well, you can. And it's all a matter of managed procrastination. Email software has gotten very smart over the years and some of it is free, while some of it requires a subscription of some sort. What most modern e-mail software allows you to do is to push e-mail away until it's needed. Maybe someone is requesting an article that I won't tackle until next week.
Normally I'd just let it sit in my inbox, because it needs to be done. Or I may put it in a folder that I won't ever see again. But at this point, and because of e-mail software, I can push it away. In other words, procrastination comes to the rescue.
On any given day, I'll deal with the urgent e-mails right away.
Everything else gets pushed for later. Either later today, which is about 3 hours after reading it, or for the evening, weekend, next week, next month, or at a specific date and time. Like Friday, 29 Sep at 3:13 pm, for example. No matter how important you are as a person, most of your e-mail can be allocated to another time zone, when you're more likely to be able to tackle what needs to be done.
For instance, some emails that require more effort, I'll either deal with right now, or push until later. It's hard to say which ones you should keep and which ones you should push away. How you defer your e-mails depends on your work load and your mood.
But one thing is clear
If you've ever had an inbox with zero e-mails or just a couple of e-mails, you know exactly what I'm talking about. You feel like a burden has been lifted off your shoulders. You feel free. You feel excited—ok, ok, I'll stop. And yet, all this procrastination, managed as it is, may seem like you're just fooling yourself. We all put reminders and alarms and when we're supposed to do the task, we swipe away that reminder.
Won't the e-mail that comes back be just an excuse to swipe it away for somewhere in the future?
I once had a few e-mails that kept coming back
At first I'd send them off for a week, as they were not urgent. But I soon found myself pushing them away for a month. They showed up in the inbox in January, February, then again in March. April, May—which is when I decided I was never going to act on them and simply archived them to pull up, should I ever need them again. If you're never going to read that e-mail now or later, you may as well get rid of it or archive it (because you never know).
E-mail is a fact of life
We don't expect to get less. We're always going to get more. And it sucks our energy to keep scanning e-mails in our box, often opening some we've already read. Much better to clear up that box so that the e-mails appear later, or as when needed in the future. To get this job done, I used Boomerang for Gmail (which is a paid service and costs about $5 a month).
On the Mac, you also have Spark, which does an excellent job and strangely is free. I know nothing about the PC because I walked away from PCs back in 2008, though Boomerang works with Outlook and should be PC-friendly.
All e-mail isn't the same
Some need to be dealt with right away. Some can do with managed procrastination. Use the procrastination and you'll be more relaxed and you'll have that new e-mail account feeling yet again.
Which takes us to the third part—and probably the biggest reason why procrastination helps.
3) Why Procrastination Can Be Good For Energy Levels
If you head to Uluru, also known as Ayer's Rock, your first experience as you leave the airport, is an invasion of bush flies. Within seconds they're swarming all over your face and in some misguided effort, you try to get rid of them. Do what you will, but they keep coming and you have the sense of losing the battle.
Work can seem a bit like bush flies, at times
You try swatting it away, but it comes back with gusto. And as you take on the day, your energy keeps edging downward. That's how our brains function; first at reasonably high efficiency, and then we seem to get slower, even making more mistakes. Procrastination, managed procrastination makes for a great energy reboot.
Which is why I'll work for a couple of hours in the morning, then go for a walk. Then I'll work for another couple of hours and then go cook lunch. All of these breaks may well seem like “wasted time” but it's “time well wasted”.
But even within that “work time”, I'll mix up activities
For instance, I may start writing an article, but then move to answering e-mail, and then to writing detailed answers to questions asked by 5000bc members. Every activity is different and disconnected. The article writing might create the highest demand on my brain, which is when I have to procrastinate after a while. Trying to take on the article on the very same day might be totally counter-productive, so I'll go build the website or go to 5000bc, instead. The activities will vary between high energy and low, all day long.
However, in between there's a clear sense of adding chunks of procrastination.
Going from one end to the other is seen as focus
Most of us revere the concept of focus, but focus doesn't mean that you have to start and finish everything at one go. A lot of activities both work-related and non-work related could all do with the break up of the activity. For instance, when I'm cooking a complex dish, I'll make sure I do it in phases. That phase by phase method is really nothing but a form of managed procrastination, and a good use of high energy vs. low energy tasks.
Procrastination is often seen as a form of laziness
And for some of us, that's just what it can turn out to be. We are either so drained by the activity that lies in front of us that we choose to avoid it, causing a further drain on energy. We know it's still on our to-do list and that drives us crazy, even though it's hard to admit it to ourselves.
However, managed procrastination is a whole different kettle of fish. When used well, it can keep your energy high so that at 5 pm every evening you're still raring to go, instead of feeling washed out and unable to do much.
Use procrastination to your advantage.
Use it to formulate better thoughts and better examples.
Use it in your e-mail to keep that inbox clean as a whistle.
And finally keep your energy high right through the day by mixing high and low energy tasks, thus using a slightly sophisticated version of procrastination.