Learning at work: can procrastination ever be a good thing?
Procrastination is often viewed as a negative thing – an obstacle to effective working – but that’s because many people aren’t doing it right. Done properly, procrastination has the potential to actually make your work better.
In our ‘always on’ world, we have super-fast internet, time-savings apps and intelligent tech that helps businesses streamline processes and cut down on admin. Arguably, we should now feel like we have more time to do our actual jobs than ever before.
However, when you think of your average working day, is this actually the case? Or due to you feeling like you can do anything, do you often feel like you have to do everything?
A recent study by HubSpot found that the more tools we have at our disposal, the less efficient we are with our time.
“In today’s hyper-connected workplace, it’s easy to fall into the trap of feeling like you have to take on everything at once,” says Brian Johnson, Operations Director at leading digital and marketing recruitment firm Forward Role.
“The problem is that, without knowing where to start, it’s hard to get anything done at all. We need to find a method that allows us to focus without cutting ourselves off from the technology that is designed to make work easier.”
So what could be the answer to our time-poor woes? Bizarrely, the solution could be that age-old foe of the workforce: procrastination.
How can you make procrastination positive?
‘Procrastination’ is something hard workers often try and avoid. However, this is simply because most of us are doing it wrong.
In his book, The Art of Procrastination, John Perry distinguishes between two types of procrastination:
- Negative procrastination — this is an unstructured form of procrastination in which we put tasks off as we get to them because we don’t want to do them. Negative procrastination stems from laziness and gets us into all sorts of trouble later down the line. It’s what most of us think of when we hear the word.
- Positive procrastination — while negative procrastinators put things off indefinitely, positive procrastinators schedule tasks to do at a later, more sensible date. They’ll strategically book their time out to do a task when it’s closer to its deadline, focusing on smaller but more urgent things in the present, not letting their growing to-do list overwhelm them.
Positive procrastination can be the key to sustaining a high level of productivity because it helps us leverage the urgency instinct we have when we’re closer to a deadline, without the stress that comes with disorganisation.
Are there any benefits to positive procrastination?
This way of working has a large number of positive benefits, and if adapted properly into your routine, can help you to become more efficient and less stressed. Here are some reasons why:
1. It helps with focus
Pushing daunting tasks closer to their deadline means you feel more pressure, which can lead to an adrenaline boost, which is exactly what you need to get tasks done in good time.
Karin Peeters, coach and psychotherapist at Inner Pilgrim, explains that the right amount of pressure can help eliminate distractions. “It can be quite refreshing to have a set amount of time. Working to a close deadline increases focus and concentration.”
Sometimes, you need to allow things to unfold without controlling the outcome.
It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that this won’t work with big projects:“You need to strike the balance,” says Karin. “Leaving yourself too little will cause unnecessary stress, but too much can leave your mind wandering.” The way to attack a big task is to break them out into smaller ones, each with their own deadline.
That way, you can use that time pressure without it being a detriment to the final output.
2. It helps you to make better decisions
When you plan a specific time to do a task, rather than rushing to get it sone straight away, you often discover new information that can either improve the final product or, occasionally, help you realise that the task is unnecessary. Some tasks simply don’t need to be done, and a bit of hindsight is the best way to discover this.
Ask valid questions about a task before committing to doing it. Not only will you start receiving more detailed briefs from team members, but you’ll also identify any logistical issues that stakeholders hadn’t previously considered. This means that no one’s time gets wasted and only valid tasks get done.
3. It helps with creativity
“When we resist the urge to take immediate action, we open ourselves up to receive new and fresh ideas,” says Karin.
"Sometimes, you need to allow things to unfold without controlling the outcome. Go for a walk, take a nap, listen to bird song, and in this space of positive procrastination, new ideas will bubble up from deep within.”
If you procrastinate properly and allow time for new ideas, you’ll approach tasks and problems in new ways and find solutions you may never have thought of before.
4. It challenges your inner perfectionist
Perfectionism is often the enemy of good work. It means the projects go on for much longer than they need to, with people getting frustrated and deadlines getting pushed back.
For many people, however, it’s very difficult to switch off that tiny voice that keeps saying, ‘it’s not right yet’.
Procrastinating properly gives you a practical way to disarm that voice and be more productive as a result.
By scheduling downtime, you give yourself permission to unwind and space for those creative ideas to brew.
“For the perfectionists among us, positive procrastination is one of the only ways to adopt that ‘good-enough’ attitude, because you don’t have the luxury of overanalysing the work you’re doing. Instead, you identify any major errors before getting it signed off,” adds Karin.
Escaping perfectionism is far more time-efficient and far less stressful.
Quick tips to procrastinate better
Get rid of your ‘maybe’ list
Don’t commit to tasks that you’re not sure about - if they need to be done, you’ll know about it.
Schedule and commit to important tasks in the long term
While you should focus on your urgent tasks in the short-term, schedule less-urgent but important tasks in your calendar.
Productivity guru Dave Crenshaw, in his LinkedIn series ‘Time Management Tips’, suggests scheduling time for yourself to complete those tasks close to their deadline, giving yourself a little extra time for any unforeseen circumstances. He says that once that task is in your calendar, you’ve committed to getting it done.
Jot down everything that’s on your mind in a big list. Now you can determine which of these tasks are urgent, and which aren’t. Those tasks that are important but aren’t due soon can wait.
The difference between someone who is good at procrastinating and someone who isn’t is that the former makes time to wind down while the latter finds it.
By scheduling downtime, you give yourself permission to unwind and space for those creative ideas to brew. Plus, you’re less likely to let that habit of mind-wandering interfere with your productive time.
Make procrastination work for you
It’s time to stop thinking of procrastination as a dirty word. Understanding how you can use your urge to procrastinate to your advantage will transform the way you work.
You’ll be more prepared, less stressed much more effective in your attempts to work smarter.