Most of us were taught that procrastination is not an effective strategy for getting things done. The common belief is that we shouldn’t put off assignments or projects until the last minute. The implication is that completing a task at the last second would mean being doomed to stress, chaos, and maybe even total failure if things didn’t come together as planned. But is it possible that procrastination may actually be an efficient strategy for some?
Some individuals are happier when completing a task immediately because they derive satisfaction from completing the task. As soon as the task has been completed, they feel relieved and are able to easily let it go. We’ll call these people “non-procrastinators.”
In contrast, procrastinators don’t experience that relief in the same way. They are perfectionists and therefore, even once the task is complete they continue to worry, ruminate, and work towards improving it. Because of this struggle, they only feel satisfied once they have achieved closure through meeting the deadline. If a project is due on Friday and they expect it to take about a day or two to complete, they prefer to begin working on the project on Wednesday and meet the deadline, rather than starting it sooner and still worrying about it for just as long.
Procrastinators also work more efficiently under time pressure. Therefore, they tend to get more done under less time. You may wonder, why not just begin the project on Monday and get it done faster? For people who are natural procrastinators, if they were to begin work on Monday, it’s likely that the project would still stretch out until Friday as they continue tweaking and correcting the work until the deadline. For procrastinators, it can actually be more productive to wait until Wednesday to begin the project.
We know now that procrastination can actually work more effectively and efficiently for some people depending their style of accomplishing goals.
A new perspective on procrastination
When our teachers warned us against procrastinating, they assumed that all procrastination is detrimental and leads to failure. However, some people are inherently inclined to complete work immediately prior to the deadline and are just as successful in doing so.
In fact, research has shown that people who procrastinate can be highly effective. It’s important to distinguish between ineffective procrastination, which causes missed deadlines and doesn’t result in work getting done, versus effective procrastination in which the work happens close to the deadline without sacrificing quality.
If you feel naturally oriented towards procrastinating, you can choose to stop beating yourself up about it and instead actively and mindfully practice effective procrastination. Rather than struggling to change your natural inclination, focus on learning effective procrastination. Below Dr. Lev provides 8 techniques to practice mindful procrastination:
8 tips for procrastinating effectively
1. Use “structured procrastination” to your advantage. Also called “active procrastination,” this phrase means that if you’re avoiding one thing on your to-due list, you use that time to accomplish something less imminent on the list instead. For example, if you are procrastinating on finishing your paperwork, rather than using that time to look at Facebook, you could make several phone calls, clean the dishes, or return emails and check those off the list.
2. Find ways to create external deadlines or consequences. Involving other people can be a good way to keep yourself accountable. Create a deadline by letting another person know that you’ll give them something by a specific date. As an example, if you’re procrastinating on tidying up your guest room, inviting a friend for dinner will motivate you to accomplish this task before your friend arrives.
3. Learn the skill of time allocation. Get good at knowing how much time to allocate to get certain things done. If it only takes twenty minutes to accomplish a certain task, then there’s no harm in waiting until half an hour before the deadline to do it. If there’s a larger project that may take several hours but the typical advice of working on it for an hour a day just doesn’t fit your work style, then you will need to accurately assess how many hours are needed and then block off that time in one or two marathon sessions to get the work done.
4. Accept that this strategy works for you. Don’t feel guilty for procrastinating—there is nothing inherently bad about it. Make procrastination a deliberate choice for yourself, call it a work style instead of a bad habit, and create systems around it that feel right for you. Beating yourself up for having a different work style is not going to help you be more efficient or successful. Accept that you are an effective procrastinator and treat yourself with kindness and self-compassion. Remember, that If you’re finding yourself missing deadlines then its no longer effective procrastination.
5. Know when it’s time to let go. Some items on your to-due list simply may not be that important to accomplish. If you have been putting off dealing with a particular item on your list for weeks or even months and no negative repercussions have occurred, it may be time to take it off the list entirely. It’s also possible that this item still needs to happen but you’re not the person who should do it, in which case you can find someone to delegate to so that it will get done.
6. Use passive preparation. There are a lot of ways to work on a task or project, and not all of them seem obvious to others. You can passively prepare a paper or a project in several ways: read articles about it, think about it creatively, talk with people about it, write down thoughts about it, or create a timeline. This approach means that you can allow yourself to explore ideas without the pressure of needing to get the actual product done just yet.
7. Get better at prioritizing tasks. One challenge for procrastinators is to decide whether a task is urgent or can wait. Identifying the true degree of urgency for each new task will help you order your to-due list so that “structured procrastination” can be seamless.
8. Reward yourself when you’ve accomplished a task. Treat yourself when you’ve accomplished tasks by their deadline. Give yourself permission to celebrate, eat your favorite dessert, watch a movie, or buy yourself something you’ve been wanting. This will positively reinforce your behaviors in the long run.
Procrastination is what you make it
Procrastination can be a destructive force or a productive one—it’s all about understanding your style and learning the right tools. So, if you’re a procrastinator stop judging yourself for it and start doing it effectively. For more information on effective procrastination or to take a procrastination quiz click here.
About the Author
Avigail Lev, PsyD.
Avigail Lev, PsyD, is a psychotherapist, author, and executive coach in the Bay Area. She is the director of the Bay Area CBT Center, a clinic in San Francisco that provides Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for individuals and couples. She specializes in integrating Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and Schema Therapy and has coauthored three books on strengthening relationships including Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Interpersonal Problems, The Interpersonal Problems Workbook, and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Couples. She has presented her research at national and international conferences and provides consultation, trainings, and workshops on utilizing evidence-based treatments. You can find more information about Avigail Lev at www.BayAreaCBTcenter.com.