August 5, 2014 3:03 pm

Stop pointless procrastination: a challenge from Smarter Everyday

Procrastinating. We’ve all done it at work from time to time; whether it’s not giving your full attention to a tough task, doing some admin instead of working on an urgent but difficult project, or tidying your desk instead of knuckling down to something crucial but boring.

We all know that procrastination can have damaging effects: it steals precious time; it can lead to increased levels of stress; and if you’re a chronic procrastinator, it can have a harmful impact on your career too. We make resolutions to stop procrastinating (“I’m going to stop procrastinating…just as soon as I’ve finished this game of Angry Birds”) but it’s a hard habit to break.

Why? Well, there are some deep-seated psychological reasons for procrastinating. Perhaps the most significant of them is something called ‘present bias’. Present bias means that we are more motivated by things with an imminent reward, and we undervalue things where the reward is further away.[1]

The Marshmallow Experiment is a famous example of this:

Two-thirds of children opt to have one marshmallow now, rather than two later. We’re much the same in adulthood, although it might take something more significant than a marshmallow to tempt us! For example, completing something gives us a hit of dopamine and a feeling of satisfaction; when faced with the choice between working on a project that will be rewarding in the long-term, and doing something quick and easy like replying to a few emails, we’re predisposed to go for the easy option.

Procrastination isn’t all bad though; it can have benefits. Delaying sometimes means that a problem or piece of work will just go away, or new information/resources will come to light that make it easier. Sometimes you need time for your brain to subconsciously process a problem, to connect ideas and come up with a solution. Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, suggests that innovation happens ‘at a glacial pace’, so procrastinating and leaving decision-making to the last minute can buy you valuable extra time.[2]

However, just because procrastinating is sometimes beneficial doesn’t mean we should give ourselves free rein to do it all the time. We need to be able to tell the difference between passive and active procrastination.

Active procrastinators delay tasks deliberately because they like to work under pressure or feel challenged, they feel in control of their time and use it purposefully. Passive procrastinators aren’t putting things off because it helps them to work better, but because they are paralysed by worry and indecision.[3]

Our Smarter Everyday challenge to you is to stop bad procrastination, and start good procrastination. Here are five tips to help you get started:

1. Be honest with yourself

Be self-critical when you find yourself procrastinating: before you put something off until tomorrow, think carefully about whether you’ll really follow through; question why you’re procrastinating – is it because you need more time, or because you feel like you don’t know how to proceed? This comes down to metacognition – thinking about thinking – and understanding how procrastination functions as a part of your mental toolkit, and when the right time to use it is. (For more on metacognition, read this post.)

2. Know your priorities

Prioritise your to-do list and get a clear idea of your deadlines and dependencies, so you know when you can afford to delay something, and when you really need to get something done. For more on the art of prioritisation try our prioritisation tool.

3. Create motivation

To combat present bias when you need to work on a long-term project that doesn’t give you an immediate reward, you need to create some motivation. Break your project down into small individual tasks that are easier to complete. Create a reward for yourself for spending a set amount of time on your project. Or create a deadline for yourself, and make it public so that other people will hold you accountable.

4. Cut yourself off from time-thieves

We all have things in our lives that steal our time and that we turn to when we want to procrastinate. These days, a lot of them are online: Twitter, Facebook, videos of kittens on YouTube, that addictive game on your phone…They make it all too easy to procrastinate so cut yourself off – turn off the internet, delete the game for a while if you’re going through a really busy period. Only open up your distraction if you’re totally sure you can control the amount of time you use it for.

5. Procrastinate wisely

If you’ve made the choice to actively procrastinate, use that time wisely. Get on with other tasks that need your attention, tackle another job that you’ve been putting off, do something that will make the rest of your work easier to complete. Just because you’re procrastinating doesn’t mean you have to be unproductive. Our series of productivity-boosting tools <link> could be a great way to spend the time.

Will you be taking our procrastination challenge? Tell us how you get on, and what tactics you’ll be trying.

Image by hang_in_there | CC BY 2.0