“Procrastination is a way of giving yourself permission not to do a perfect job, because usually a perfect job isn’t required.”—John Perry, American philosopher and Professor Emeritus at Stanford University.
In the late Robert Parker’s Spenser mysteries, the main character’s girlfriend, psychologist Susan Silverman, had an unusual way of ensuring her productivity: she deliberately made herself late for everything. Whether she had to meet a student in need of guidance or prepare for a class, she ignored the time she’d set to begin preparing, literally waiting until the last minute—and beyond—to get to work. Then she accelerated into a whirlwind of efficiency to ensure she arrived in time and turned in her maximum effort.
Some people find this actually works for them in real life; indeed, despite its known negative consequences, some researchers believe procrastination has a place as a productivity tool. Like Susan, some of us perform well under pressure—at least when there’s not too much of it. Plus, you can organize your procrastination in such a way as to motivate yourself to do your priority tasks first.
While counterintuitive, I’ve heard it enough from audience members and readers that I think it’s worth investigating. So let’s consider together these five tips on how to kick yourself into gear with procrastination.
1. Engage in self-deception. When compiling your daily to-do list, put an unusually difficult but important task at the top—one that needs to be done, though not necessarily now (it’s a high-value activity but not due). Follow this with more urgent tasks you definitely need to do now. Ideally, when you see the daunting task at the top of the list, you’ll drop to one of the more crucial ones. If you end up doing the first task after all, then you’ve accomplished something valuable anyway.
2. Fill your list with top-priority jobs. Rather than document low-echelon tasks on your daily list, put only top priorities on it and keep the rest on a master list by start date. Only allow yourself to have a maximum of five tasks on your to-do list each day. That way, if you choose to procrastinate on one task by doing another, you’ll complete something vital no matter what.
3. Triage your to-do list. If you’ve already crafted your list and find yourself procrastinating, you needn’t start over. Perform task triage, one of my top productivity methods. Trim the fat from your list, put off what you can until tomorrow, delegate tasks others can handle, and let items drop off your list (and see if anyone notices), until all you have left is the lean meat. This isn’t laziness or responsibility shuffling; it’s a form of efficiency. If you can give a task to someone else, for example, why are you doing it in the first place? If you didn’t do it at all, and no one noticed, shouldn’t you be procrastinating on it due to its low importance? Anything you put off more than three times probably shouldn’t have been on your list in the first place, as they only drain your time and energy shuffling them around. Put them on a “hold” list you might look at monthly or quarterly and see if anything has risen in priority. You’ll know about it soon enough if it does anyway.
4. Accept good enough as good enough. Procrastination and perfectionism are two sides of the same coin. Some of us procrastinate because we want perfection before we begin, but of course perfection never happens. In many cases, your first stab is good enough to get started; many entrepreneurs release imperfect products and fix them later, after the first flush of success. Or just get a project started and fine tune the details as they go. Bill Gates and Microsoft have become famous for it. If you’re going to procrastinate anyway, give yourself permission to not be perfect, so the perfectionist gear doesn’t engage and stall you in place. When I write books, the first draft is really ugly, but I schedule a writing retreat and force myself to get something down on the page anyway. I can always edit later.
5. Harness your adrenaline. One of the reasons Susan Silverman waited until past the last minute to do anything was to trigger a rush of adrenaline to power her through her daily tasks. While she’s fictional, this does seem to work for real people. How many people did you know in college who waited until the night before a paper was due to even write it—and yet pulled off an A? Some people require danger—in the “running out of time” sense—in order to rev their creative engines and feel alive. If this works for you, give it a try. But if it keeps backfiring since you didn’t allow enough time, back up your “deadline” sooner.
The End Justifies the Means
Admittedly, using procrastination tactics isn’t my favorite productivity method, as it doesn’t fit my personality. That said, maybe it fits yours. It actually works for some people, especially those predisposed to procrastination anyhow. Sometimes, those people prove among the most brilliant in their fields—if only because the process quickly weeds out those who fail at it. Being a procrastinator doesn’t have to mean you’re undisciplined and lazy. If you know you’re going to procrastinate anyway, find ways to structure your procrastination that still force you to get work done. What methods have you found that work for you?
© 2016 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (January 18, 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.