Why Procrastination Is Actually Super Productive
You'll be relieved to know that procrastination has been mankind's eternal nemesis. As a Roman poet all-too-relatably stated "I am dragged along by a strange force. I see the right way and approve it, but I follow the wrong." (1) We've all been there Ovid. We idolise work and those who work hard, who can get over that internal force of wanting to rest and put things off for later. We think those people are made of different things than us.
I came across this quote (on Instagram... I know) "Killing time isn't murder, it's suicide." (2) and it really got me thinking about just how far we take this hatred for procrastination. It's quotes like these that feed a panic for getting things done and churning out amazing results that really make me want to consider just why we hate ourselves so much and question if we are really justified in doing so.
It is rare that there are blanket statements that fit everything: and that's probably true of hard work too. My argument here is that there is sufficient evidence to suggest that there is such a thing as productive procrastination and that we may even benefit from intentionally getting ourselves to put things off for later. That procrastination may lead to better results in our projects and timed right, it can actually fuel motivation to get things done.
Let me explain.
There are two types of tasks: one is the simple task: putting the milk back into the fridge, paying your gym fees, calling the bank, replying to an email and scheduling a delivery time for the Amazon parcel you convinced yourself you needed.
The other task is more like a project: finish the first draft of your essay, finally start the blog you've been thinking of, book a holiday and decide in which direction you want your career to start going in.
It is important to realise that these two sorts of tasks are very very different. The first is of the type that you know exactly how it will go: you know where your fridge is and how to screw a bottle top on. The second requires research, thinking, considerations and weighing options. Although our laziness and desire to put things off for later does not discriminate in possessing us to scroll through Instragram, we actually can distinguish between the two.
My argument starts with the first task (sorry) you just need to do it. I won't focus on it too much. Use the 5 second, 2 minute or 10 minute rule, whichever floats your boat and just bash out those annoying little things that you keep putting off. No mercy.
It is the second type where the fun starts.
Cal Newport stated "for decisions that involve large amounts of information and multiple vague, and perhaps even conflicting, constraints, your unconscious mind is well suited to tackle the issue." (3)
That's to say, you can work better on the task, when you're not trying to think about the task.
You may have experienced this 'shower breakthrough' or finally understanding something from class while playing a video game - that's your unconscious at work. You get the result while not actively thinking about the problem but letting it brew in the back of your mind.
There are many theories as to how this works. For example, it is well known that sleep aids in memorisation (4) and even helps in finding solutions to problems (5) - so taking a nap, is arguably actually part of your work (can we start billing for nap time?)
Taking a walk in nature also has been shown to aid in creativity and improve our efforts. (6) Ratey found that working in eagerness or fear of forgetting what we are doing can actually have a detrimental effect on our work. Furthermore, Doyle argued that breaks are much more than just opportunities to recover, but they are cruical for learning - they allow the brain to process information, move it to the long term memory and prepare it for more learning. (7)
Ok, so by this point you should be able to see that there are benefits to putting your work down in terms of producing better content in the end - finding new connections, coming up with breakthroughs and remembering more of your task.
One last argument I would like to address relates to procrastination and motivation. I particularly love this one, because of the assumption that those who procrastinate lack motivation. Well, if you procrastinate right, you can actually be fuelling your motivation.
There are many different words neuroscientists and psychologists use to describe the phenomenon of taking a break from your task: 'attention residue', 'cliff hangers'; or my personal favourite 'long term potentiation'.
They all describe the same thing: you start a complicated task and then you just let it be. You create a cliffhanger for yourself.
Participants in studies are able to recall twice as many unfinished tasks as they can finished ones. Even when the tasks are all completed, we're better at remembering those which were initially interrupted. (8) This shows that our brain favours cliffhangers (just one more episode).
“When the subject sets out to perform the operations required by one of these tasks there develops within him a quasi-need for completion of that task. This is like the occurrence of a tension system which tends towards resolution. Completing the task means resolving the tension system, or discharging the quasi-need. If a task is not completed, a state of tension remains and the quasi-need is unstilled.” (8)
So, by forcing (or let's be honest, letting) yourself stop work on a task, you are actually fuelling your motivation and your brains need to get it completed.
Practically, if you're putting off something you reaaally don't want to do but have to, one way to hack your brain into hating it less, is to just do the first step: get a piece of paper and write down the title of the essay; create an email draft with just the subject and sender in your inbox; buy the book and put it on your table. You might develop a need to start to actually get the task done soon.
So the problem isn't with procrastinating itself, you should definitely be doing it (and chances are you can't avoid it anyway) it's just about small tweaks you can do to make it work in your favour and mitigate some of the potential guilt it tends to always bring.
So, have a complicated task you are putting off? Do the tiniest thing to get it started and take a nap, walk or whatever floats your boat. And don't listen to the gurus. Trust me, everyone's procrastinating anyway.
(1) Ovid, a Roman Poet
(2) Some Instagram Guru
(3) Deep Work - Cal Newport
(4) Wagner et al. 2004
(5) Wamsley et al. 2010)
(6) Ratey, 2008
(7) Doyle and Zakrajsek 2013
(8) Study from Bluma Zeigarnik