You know the feeling. You've got an email you need to write, a paper you need to turn in, a form you need to fill out, or an enormous pile of laundry that needs washing. But all you want to do is kick back on the couch, watch Netflix, and think about all the important work you're not doing. It's too bad feeling guilty about not working doesn't do much to actually get your work done. Except, it turns out that some experts think putting off your work isn't such a bad thing. Here's how not working can work for you.
A Wait Off Your Shoulders
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, former investment banker and corporate lawyer Frank Partnoy described in detail exactly how procrastination had helped him in his life. He's kind of a pro at it. After all, he wrote the book on the subject. In Partnoy's view, procrastination isn't just a shortcoming of lazy people. It's "a universal state of being for humans." That is to say, human beings are notorious for overcommitting ourselves. It's almost inevitable that we will, at any given point in time, have more things on our plate than we could possibly handle. And that's where learning how to procrastinate comes in.
He uses an example from his childhood: When his mother would ask him to make his bed, he'd always resist. Why make the bed if he was just going to mess it up again? Because, said his mom, somebody might come to visit the house, and if they did, they might see his messy bed. To little Frank, that made his course of action clear — since he could make his bed in under a minute, and any visitors wouldn't be coming until 6 p.m. at the absolute earliest, he wouldn't need to do his chore until 5:59 at the earliest. Or as he put it, "I want to see a car in the driveway."
You probably know the feeling: Why do it now if you can panic about it at the eleventh hour? Luckily, you can use this tendency to make better decisions and get more done. First, answer the question, "What is the absolute last moment that I can do this work or make this decision?" Second, wait until that moment to do it. That gives you more time to think about your decision, weigh all factors, and make room for any unexpected events that might influence how you go about your choice.
Think about baseball. A first-time player might start running the minute they see the ball coming, even though it could be going faster or slower than they realize. Meanwhile, a seasoned shortstop knows how long they can wait before going exactly where they need to be.
There are a couple of ways you might be procrastinating in a less-than-ideal way. Here are some strategies to procrastinate the right way:
Whether you're chomping at the bit to get your work done or you can't be bothered with the stuff, the most important thing to remember is that your "downtime" isn't downtime — your procrastination only helps your productivity if you actually use the time you're taking on productive things. Otherwise, you're only being efficient at shaping your couch indentation.
Procrastination is an odd compulsion. Everyone has experienced it, but the underlying reasons can be tough to pin down.
After all, too often procrastination delays the very activities that bring people closer to their goals -- whether that’s building a thriving business or stronger triceps. So why don’t humans just sprint toward that brighter, fitter future?
The science.Scientific studies of procrastination have spiked over the past 20 years. Researchers once considered the issue a basic time-management problem, but they now view it as a complex and highly individual phenomena.
Experts define it as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we'll suffer as a result. A poor concept of time may exacerbate the problem, but an inability to manage emotions seems to be its very foundation."
Here are four factors that might be behind your bad habit, along with some ideas to help you conquer each scenario.
1. Progress doesn’t feel fast enough.Think about the last time you started a new project or business endeavor. You probably felt excited and energized by the challenge. A couple months (or years) later, the shine dulled. Maybe you felt discouraged and even a little bored. You were fighting both time and biology.
Dopamine often is described as the brain’s “reward chemical,” activated by the ping of a smartphone or a heaping plate of pasta. But new research shows dopamine is more closely related to reward-seeking behavior than operating as a reward itself.
When your brain encounters novelty, it releases dopamine. The natural chemical motivates you to search for a reward (there's that exploring and pushing forward again). But when the project's novelty wears off, your mind rebels. Your motivation drops as your brain thinks, "My hard work isn't being rewarded. This isn't fun anymore."
The "Present Self" and its demand for instant gratification makes it even tougher to force yourself to open the spreadsheet yet again or to keep chipping away at a frustrating product feature.
You can fight the dopamine drop by setting up “small wins” and celebrating each milestone. Every task should be accompanied by a simple trigger. Imagine you want to create an online course. You could commit to writing a paragraph after every glass of water, then continue this triggered behavior throughout the day.
Once the task is done, it’s time for the small celebration. You could listen to a favorite song, take a brief walk, or read a great book. Repeat this process until you’ve achieved your goal. Small wins reward your novelty-seeking brain and nudge you toward the finish line. The feedback loop also establishes a powerful habit that can eliminate the need for motivation entirely.
2. You don’t know where to start.It's common to feel overwhelmed in today's fast-paced world. Seemingly endless to-do lists can make it feel as if there's no good place to start. Unfortunately, divided attention often leads people to procrastinate in a sneaky way: They engage first in low-value activities such as emptying the inbox or checking social media.
Founders are especially prone to these feelings because there’s rarely a clear path forward. If you're like most entrepreneurs, you also may be wearing a lot of hats or juggling a packed schedule. In talking to fellow entrepreneurs, I’ve learned it’s normal to feel uncertain -- particularly when starting something new. Remind yourself it’s OK not to have the answers. Give yourself permission to start where you can.
Brainstorming solutions with friends, mentors and advisors can help you establish clear priorities. Seek out people who aren't lost in the weeds of your business' day-to-day demands. They often can help you realize where your time is best spent and what you should delegate.
3. You're afraid to fail.Founders love to repeat the mantra “fail fast, fail often.” Below the bravado, however, many live in fear of making bad decisions.
Some fear failure so intensely they cut corners. Others might delay launch dates, miss deadlines or obsess over small details instead of releasing a beta version. I'm not immune. I struggled with perfectionism during the early days of my business. Perhaps we could have grown faster, but I was a bootstrapped founder. I didn’t have a board or investors monitoring my every move. When the fear of failure crept in, I could be gentle with myself and then carry on.
4. You don’t like the task.Some activities aren’t fun. Few people enjoy going to the dentist, doing their taxes or visiting the DMV. Building a business also requires many less-than-thrilling activities. When there are so many moving parts to tackle, who wants to spend precious hours invoicing?
This is perhaps the most mundane type of procrastination. People put off dull, boring, or uninspiring tasks because they don’t feel like tackling them.
“Somewhere along the way, we’ve all bought into the idea, without consciously realizing it, that to be motivated and effective we need to feel like we want to take action,” social psychologist Heidi Grant wrote.
Grant suggests that instead of waiting for motivational lightning to strike, you apply a technique called “if-then planning.” First, identify the steps required to complete a task. Next -- and most important -- determine where and when you’ll act. Tell yourself, for example, "If it’s 10 am, then I’ll close my email and research design agencies."
This process doesn’t require willpower. And that’s important, because a lack of willpower, in the traditional sense, might lead you to postpone things in the first place. Embrace your limited resolve, Grant recommends, and use if-then planning as a backup tool.
The power of self-knowledge.Everyone has different motivations, goals and personalities, so it makes sense that everyone also has different reasons for procrastinating. Once you understand what’s blocking you, it’s easier to choose the best solution. Ignore the other hacks and don’t worry if “expert” advice falls down.
After all, it's more important to know yourself, experiment and stick with what works for you. And take comfort in knowing every human who's lived has faced the same challenge, from wise ancient Greeks to Silicon Valley startup founders.