How to make procrastination work for you

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You beat yourself up about procrastinating, but guilt makes you feel even less like working, and before you know it you’ve read every article recommended on Zite, endorsed numerous people’s skills on LinkedIn, and you feel guiltier than ever. A lot has been written on how to cure procrastination, but let’s be honest: if you’re a hardened procrastinator, quitting procrastination is probably going to require extensive psychotherapy. Fortunately, there is an alternative: making procrastination work for you. Believe it or not, you can accomplish a lot by putting things off.

John Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford, calls this approach “structured procrastination.” He’s an unabashed procrastinator who somehow manages to be wildly productive. In his eighth book, The Art of ProcrastinationPerry points out that it’s remarkably easy to get something done if it’s not the thing you’re supposed to be doing. You know what he’s talking about if you’ve ever decided to work at home so you can buckle down and finish a big presentation, only to find yourself cleaning out the fridge.

Perry suggests that you harness this nervous fridge-cleaning energy by means of a simple trick: always put something you really don’t want to do at the top of your to-do list. Call it a “decoy task.” You’ll be so eager to avoid doing it that you’ll happily tackle the other tasks on your list, which will seem so much more appealing by contrast.

With luck, you’ll gradually feel motivated to tackle your top-priority task. According to this study, accomplishing a small goal — even if it’s not what you’re supposed to be doing — increases your well-being, which energizes you. Plus, while you’ve been accomplishing this small goal, your subconscious may have been working on the task you’re trying to avoid, perhaps generating some creative solutions. And if you still don’t feel like writing that big presentation or report? At least you got a bunch of other stuff done.

Obviously, this technique relies on a certain amount of self-deception. If you know the task at the top of your list is a mere decoy — one that you don’t actually plan to do today — is it still going to generate the necessary anxiety that will drive you to get other stuff done? Yes, says Perry, because procrastinators are masters of self-deception, constantly feeding themselves all sorts of lies such as “I’ll feel more like doing it tomorrow.”

Okay, but eventually that task at the top of your list still has to get done, right? One possibility, says Perry, is that the deadline will loom, or perhaps even pass, and you’ll have no choice but to knock out that presentation. Time pressure is actually a boon to procrastinators, explains Perry, because it enables them to override their perfectionism, focusing instead on just getting the job done. Or, says Perry cheerfully, “Something worse is bound to come along.” If the alternative is dishing out a harsh progress report to someone on your team, finishing that presentation should be a doddle.

Helena Echlin
Helena Echlin has written for numerous publications, such as The Guardian, The Times, and The Sunday Telegraph in the UK, and Yoga Journal and The San Francisco Chronicle in the US. For five years, she wrote Table Manners, an etiquette advice column for CHOW.com.
Helena Echlin
Tags: Business,Productivity