Procrastination and the Art of Getting Things Done

Go ahead, wander around: it will be fine

Procrastination is commonly perceived as wasting time on useless activities. I don’t see it that way. The Latin origin of the word and its modern definition agree—procrastination is moving something forward from one day until the next. There’s no mention of what you do today.

You may run a solo operation, have a full time job, or be somewhere in between, but as a creator, you’ve got to embrace procrastination to work in a faster, more efficient way. Your reading this is proof that it’s possible; I procrastinated like a boss for six years to build this website, and then I needed two more months to write these words.

Bitwa pod Grunwaldem

I was inspired to pen this article after spending one morning in procrastinators’ headquarters—Reddit—where I read this message:

“I need to study for my last exam, so I spent last hour adding lightsabers to the most famous painting in my country, Bitwa pod Grunwaldem (Battle of Grunwald), by Polish painter Jan Matejko. I really should be studying right now.”

The poster was Bartosz Kiełbaszewski, a software engineer from Warsaw who apparently knows how to procrastinate with gusto. Take a look at the result.

Then it struck me—you can tap into your procrastination energy to get things done. It’s a detour, yes, but also an opportunity to focus in a way that’s not always possible with your main task.

Try to remember something that you’ve created while borrowing time reserved to other activity; something that you’re proud of, like Bartosz’ Grunwald; something that makes you wonder how you pulled it off. You may have gone through the process while having fun and being deep in the zone. That, right there, was a good use of procrastination, and to reproduce the experience at will, you need to know more about a monkey, self-deception and how habits work.

Finding your way in the Dark Playground

Tim Urban, who writes pretty well but draws like a three-year-old—and that’s awesome—has clearly explained why procrastinators procrastinate. Tim identifies the root of the problem: a battle in your head between the Rational Decision-Maker, your responsible adult self trying to navigate through life, and the Instant Gratification Monkey, a silly beast who doesn’t know better and only wants to go to the Dark Playground, “a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening.”

You may already be familiar with some of the inhabitants of the Dark Playground: silly memes, Facebook posts, an iguana, and snakes, lots of snakes. Granted, you may dig up some interesting fact while wandering there, like the origin of James Bond’s name in Wikipedia, but you’ll feel guilty and anxious as you realize that your time in the Dark Playground is undeserved—you should be doing something else.

And you’ll keep consuming time on anything to avoid getting to your main, most pressing task until the scary red creature that Tim calls the Panic Monster shows up; it embodies the real danger of messing things up to the point of looking like an idiot, missing a deadline or losing your job.

If you are an employee—and want to stay one—the Panic Monster will get you to work. Unfortunately, if you don’t make any changes, you’ll be stuck repeating the loop, waiting until the last minute, rushing to meet deadlines, and being content with mediocre results on every future project.

On the other hand, if you’re self-employed or work part time on your side projects, the Panic Monster may never show up and without its pressure you may not finish anything off. As an independent, creative worker, you can’t take that risk.

In 1996, John Perry, a professor of philosophy at Stanford University, wrote about structured procrastination, which he defined as “the art of making this bad trait work for you.” Perry’s premise starts with the idea that procrastination isn’t about doing absolutely nothing, but doing other useless or marginally useful things. He believes a procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult and important tasks on time as a way of not doing something more important. He is damn right; I experience this every day.

Structured procrastination is a powerful tool for creators, especially if you have a plethora of interests. A long to-do list will guarantee that you won’t run out of excuses to work on something else today. Keep in mind, however, that what’s interesting now may become the task to avoid tomorrow, and that’s perfectly fine.

Yup. It’s a game of self-deception, but Perry concludes: “virtually all procrastinators also have excellent skills at self-deception.” How convenient, isn’t it?

I’ve spent years shuffling my never-ending list, which keeps growing, but only recently I’ve come to realize that I’ve been doing structured procrastination all along.

Like a little mini-celebration

I’m sure you’ve spent plenty of time with the Instant Gratification Monkey and exercised some form of structured procrastination, but knowing what the problem is and reordering tasks is not enough. You have to get shit done by EOD—the obnoxious, jargonish way of saying end of day—and to accomplish that, you’ll have to turn getting things done into a habit.

Charles Duhigg, in his excellent book The Power of Habit, tells the story of a team of Procter & Gamble scientists and marketers in 1996 trying to figure out how to sell a new spray called Febreze, an astounding feat of chemistry capable of removing bad smells, that had been a sales flop.

The P&G team found out, after many interviews and a thorough investigation, what was happening: people become accustomed to smells in their lives, including the bad ones. So, they started looking for new strategies to sell Febreze and eventually began reading up on experiments about cues, rewards and habits.

A cue is the signal that triggers a routine, like using Febreze to clean your house, in order to get a reward—a house without bad smells. The bad smell was supposed to be the cue to use Febreze but it wasn’t working because, how the hell do you sell a product to remove smells if people can’t notice such smells exist?

The smart folks at P&G went back to interviewing customers, trying to find a way to make the product a part of their lives, and, to their surprise, they found a few who loved Febreze. One of these was a woman in her forties with four kids. She used Febreze as part of her normal cleaning routine and always applied a couple of sprays as a final touch. “Spraying feels like a little mini-celebration when I’m done with the room,” she told the interviewers.

Febreze’s cue, routine and reward loop was missing an important element: a craving to drive it. Cleaning a house is tedious work, but anticipating that little mini-celebration with Febreze at the end of her routine made this woman go through it. This critical discovery made P&G change its marketing strategy to focus on pleasant smells and good cleaning habits. Febreze was relaunched in 1998 and sold more than $230 million within a year.

That’s how you build the habit of getting things done: by developing a craving, by making your brain anticipate the reward after successfully completing the task you are avoiding—the one at the top of your list. Interestingly, some of these tasks might not be as difficult or time-consuming as you expect.

Well, why don’t you try it? Here a few suggestions:

  • Have to complete a boring report for the higher-ups? Write it like a professional business person and go back to crafting your sci-fi novel tonight.
  • Have to take care of a bug in an old software library? Fix it with well-thought-out code and continue with your Python AI experiments in the evening.
  • Have to deliver a mockup for your client’s new but still cluttered website? Design it with finesse and return to the clean, efficient interface of your solo project at the end of the day.

Yes, I’m suggesting more work as your reward, and that’s because I firmly believe you have an extra supply of energy reserved for your ideas. You can take a night or two a week to see who Rick Grimes is going to whack, play Overwatch or—because I’m not a cold-hearted lizard—spend some quality time with family. You’ve earned it.

The ultimate goal

We are all guilty of burning time reading silly tweets or googling for the perfect GIF to compose that witty response in Slack; I admit it, it can be a lot of fun, but it doesn’t compare to the sense of accomplishment you get when completing real work—especially when it’s your own stuff.

Being able to tame procrastination is a super power, and it feels fucking good to be able to say “yes, I did that all by myself, and it only took me six years.”

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