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The Art of Doing Nothing: A Procrastinator’s Manifesto

The Risk: In general, we think of procrastination as inherently bad when, in fact, it can be quite constructive.

The Reward: By embracing “active” procrastination, you can actually become just as productive and happy as those who don’t procrastinate at all.

It was two weeks until the marathon and I still didn’t have my ticket to Greece. Then it was two days, and I still hadn’t replaced my shoes. Then it was two hours and my bag wasn’t packed.

Despite all this I found a ticket, quit worrying about shoes, packed my bag without forgetting a thing, and had a great trip.

This article was created in much the same way, hurriedly put together at the 11th hour and published just before the deadline. Yet it’s done and I think it’s quite good, too.

Throughout life, there seems to be a number of things that fit into one of two categories:

  1. Everyone says it’s good but, in fact, it’s quite bad.
  2. Everyone says it’s bad but, in fact, it can be quite good.

Procrastination fits squarely into the second category. As a society, we’ve come to loathe it and we dedicate an incredible amount of time and money learning how to beat it. A quick search on Amazon for “procrastination” yields 1,546 results. As far as I can tell, none of them are about how to procrastinate more.

Procrastination has been our enemy for ages and, through thousands of years of battle, we’ve yet to defeat it.

But what if we’re waging war in the wrong place? What if procrastination is actually our ally instead of our enemy? I think that may actually be the case, and I’m not the only one who thinks it.

The Truth About Procrastination

If procrastination is such a bad thing, then why do we love it so much? And why is it that, as a society, we despise it, but at the personal level, we don’t think it’s all that bad.

Don’t believe me? I polled all my friends on Twitter with a very simple question:

“Is procrastination always a bad thing?”

Apart from the few who responded with smart-ass comments like, “I’ll let you know tomorrow,” the answers were surprisingly negative, and most people embraced procrastination:

Granted, Twitter—an excellent procrastination aid—may not be the best source for unbiased answers, but these are the responses of real people just like you and me.

By the way, if you’d like to be a part of my highly unscientific studies in the future, be sure to connect with me on Twitter & Facebook.

From a more credible source, consider a recent study at Columbia University that found procrastinating students often experience just as much personal satisfaction, have the same amount of internal motivation, and get just as much done as students who don’t wait to finish their work. Basically the opposite of what was expected.

How could it be?

Well, the findings of the study weren’t as cut and dry as “procrastinators are just as good as non-procrastinators, na na na boo boo.” What the researchers actually found was there are two different types of procrastination—active and passive. Which one you have a penchant for is surprisingly responsible for how satisfied you’ll be with your life and your work.

The Art of Doing Nothing

The major difference between active and passive procrastinators are that the active put things off to pursue other things that they see as equally important but more urgent and, when finally forced to act, actually come through and give a solid performance just before the clock expires.

Passive procrastinators, however, put things off without a sense of prioritization and, when faced with the reality that they must either come through or experience failure, often choose the latter.

Active procrastinators win the game at the buzzer while passive procrastinators never even make it to the court.

When I look back at examples from my life, the “active procrastinator” title seems to fit me perfectly.

  • In school, every project was handed in at the last minute, but I graduated with honors.
  • When I wrestled, almost every match I won went to overtime.
  • At my old job our winning bids were always handed in just before the deadline and projects were always finished on the last day of the schedule.

Even now, doing work that fascinates me, I tend to work on a last-minute schedule. I spend my days doing things that need to be done immediately because I’ve pushed them off for other important things that also needed to be done immediately.

I like it this way, and the pressure doesn’t bother me. For an active procrastinator, the stress that comes from a shortened schedule is more like fuel for the productivity fire than an extinguisher.

The active procrastinator understands and embraces Parkinson’s Law…

Parkinson’s Law: A Procrastinator’s Best Friend

A few years ago, I was tired with my job and decided I wanted to quit. I gave myself six months to get everything in order, and then I’d hand in my resignation letter. Two months later I was laid off, and I hadn’t even started the process of getting my plan together. After getting fired, I sat down each day for 30 days and, at the end, I’d started a new business. Here I am almost two years later still alive, still happy, and still going.

“Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”

This is the theory behind Parkinson’s Law, and it guides the principles of a competent procrastinator. If you give yourself 2 months to finish a project, you’ll complete it in exactly 2 months. If you give yourself 2 weeks, you’ll find a way to finish it in 2 weeks.

However much time you decide to give yourself to complete a task, that’s exactly how much time you’ll need to complete it. This is because, when given a hard date to complete something, you’re actually quite good at estimating what you’ll be able to accomplish, and you adjust accordingly.

If you have a day job, consider how you react when someone assigns you a project due in a month. If you’re not the procrastinating type, you probably scale down a few other things and start right away. But if you are, then you probably make a reminder in your calendar for a week or so before it’s due and forget all about it. Then, when the time comes, you spend a few days in hyper-productivity mode before kicking back and waiting for the next one.

This is Parkinson’s Law in action. It was originally used to explain why the British Government kept getting bigger even as its overseas colonies continued to dwindle, but it applies just the same to everyday life.

The active procrastinator understands that if he wants to get something done faster, all he really needs to do is give himself less time to do it.

Of course, when it comes to procrastinating on personal and meaningful things, there are two major snags in the system that keep the unhappy, passive procrastinator from getting it together:

  1. Accountability, and
  2. Pacing

How to Punish Yourself into Becoming an Active Procrastinator

Even though everyone seems to know that procrastination isn’t necessarily bad, most still tend to have some ill feelings for it. Look at the results I gathered when I asked the same people on Twitter (and now on Facebook as well) if they felt that, on any given day, they got “enough” done:

Just because you know that procrastination can be good obviously doesn’t mean you harness it skillfully…

If you’re an active procrastinator by nature, then getting started and getting finished when the time comes isn’t a big issue. The problem, of course, is that most of us aren’t. I don’t believe I am, but I do think I learned relatively early how to deal with it.

Where procrastination really becomes a problem is when you know what you want to do, but it’s either:

  1. Too big to wait until the last second, or
  2. You can’t find the motivation to get started.

The solutions to these problems are simple, but they’re rarely easy to carry out. The two greatest tools that the accomplished procrastinator has in his toolkit to address them are:

  1. Milestones: the points along an endeavor that signal significant progress
  2. Deadlines: the things that actually force you to reach the milestones

The reason these are simple is because everyone already knows what they are and creating them doesn’t take much explanation. The reason they’re difficult is because sticking to them becomes very problematic when any kind of resistance gets in your way.

The only way I’ve found to accomplish something substantial is to break it into smaller, unsubstantial pieces. Having many little milestones makes it easier to get started because there’s nothing overwhelming or confusing about something small. When you can see that one milestone has been completed, it’s a confidence booster for completing the next one.

A visual confirmation of your progress is highly underrated, especially once you’re more than half-finished.

The more difficult barrier to maneuver around is the deadline—easy to set but damn hard to stick to.

When you’re trying to become an active procrastinator and finish something personal, deadlines are hard to maintain because they aren’t real—no one’s holding your feet to the fire. This is where accountability comes into play. You need someone and/or something to keep you on the right track.

Unfortunately, just telling someone about your deadline isn’t enough. Most research suggests that talking about your goals may actually be detrimental to real progress because most people associate discussion with real progress (which, of course, it isn’t).

So, you need something more. You need a real consequence, something punitive. And the best consequences are automatic—they punish you automatically if you don’t follow through.

Any time I plan to run a marathon, the first thing I do is pay my entry fee—usually around $100. This is money I will automatically lose (or be upset that I spent) if I don’t train for it, buy my plane ticket, and get to the start line. I’m frugal, so $100 is surprisingly motivating to me. This is one way to harness the sunk cost fallacy.

How much would you need to lose to take real, decisive action?

The more confident you become, the less you need an external motivator like this, but “training wheels” are helpful in the beginning.

The Final Word

Though it may sound like a joke, procrastination really is a tool—one that can be used for good or for…laziness. The key to successful procrastination is in its implementation: you have to be strategic with your lousing about. And the truth is that healthy procrastinating often doesn’t include much idleness because you put things off in order to do other important things.

Corbett Barr made a short video that does a good job of explaining the difference between effective and destructive procrastination. It’s worth the few minutes it takes to watch it.

And don’t forget that habit change can be tricky. Going from passive to active procrastination isn’t always smooth sailing, and the times you’re most likely to fail will be in the beginning when you’re just getting started and then again just before it becomes an ingrained habit.

When things get difficult, you’ll be tempted to stop and do something distracting. Giving in is easy if you don’t have any help, but with plug-ins like Stay Focused for Chrome or Leech Block for Firefox, you can block yourself from the websites you run to when things get tough.

Offline, you can create back-up activities—things you can do without feeling guilty—if you need to take a break from what you’re working on now.

There are a million more things you can do, but most of all, just enjoy your procrastination—it’s good for you.

 

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