Seize Tomorrow: The Eight Rules of Productive Procrastination
We all love the power of Now—unless we're talking about the work we need to do.
Where comes professionalism and responsibility, there also comes procrastination—because, as it turns out, smart people are good at rationalizing, and they're good at putting things off.
This is especially true of creatives like ourselves, people who sometimes prefer to think about something, or to work around it, than to attack it head-on. As comedian John Mulaney put it aptly, “It is 100% easier not to do things than to do them.”
This isn't entirely bad.
On occasion, deliberate procrastination can help you have a better workday, and let's face it, we all have our off days. So if procrastination is gonna happen, you may as well do it right—and if you're gonna do it right, there are some rules.
So, Fight Club-style, here are the rules of productive procrastination:
Rule No. 1—You cannot stop being productive.
Rule No. 2—You cannot stop being productive.
Seriously. If you aren’t being productive, you’re just procrastinating. If during work hours you’re willfully avoiding one task, it’s only fair that you accomplish something else instead.
Be halfway serious about the time you’re spending. Knitting and catching up on Scandal is not productive procrastination; it’s not even close. (For us, the recent trap has been Sid Meier’s Civilization V, because as the mastermind of a civilization you feel very productive even though… you’re not.)
Rule No. 3—Allow yourself to do the wrong thing, for once
We all know that we should do the most important things first. But some days, you know it just isn’t happening, and you know that, whatever it is, it can wait one more day.
So if you’ve already harbored that thought and given up—and will be making it manifest through your behavior that day—there’s no point in guilting yourself about it. Let it go for today.
Even if you’re not doing what you should, you can still be super-productive, especially since letting that dreaded task rest should lower your stress level.
Rule No. 4—Always start high on the food chain
Consider your to-do list as an ordered list, with the Number 1 item being the one you’re not doing.
Notice, though, that there’s still a pecking order; of the other things you’ve got to do, some are more important.
Productive procrastination should not mean “doing whatever you want”—it should mean “avoiding doing that one thing, but smartly.” So if you’re too lazy to hunt a woolly mammoth today, metaphorically speaking, ask yourself if you could tackle a bear, or a moose, or at least a coyote.
Start as large as you can, then work your way down. After deciding not to hunt the woolly mammoth, you shouldn’t go straight to digging for grubs.
Rule No. 5—Move what you can move
As John Perry pointed out in his piece on the subject, structured procrastination relies upon the fact that you’re putting off the most important item on your list.
By Perry’s logic, one way to make sure that something gets done is to make sure something else becomes more important. By moving other projects forward, you remain further ahead on them, and you give those other projects momentum so that, when they come back to you, they might be bigger—big enough to make you want to do the task you’d put off in the first place.
Rule No. 6—Set yourself up for success while you wait
Again, don’t jump straight to whatever you might want to do most; instead, ask yourself what you could do around all of the work you’re avoiding.
If you’re choosing to exit the fast track to success, at least for today, spend the time on a useful pit stop.
For instance, see if there’s something you can do to clean up your “work infrastructure”—things like cleaning out your inbox, organizing, installing or updating software, developing or improving workflow systems, et cetera—a strong choice, since those accomplishments help you stay effective on your on-days.
It also helps prevent days like these from being too frequent. On that note...
Rule No. 7—Don’t get hooked
This kind of behavior is, by definition, habit-forming; it’s easy to fall into this pattern of procrastination.
Some people can manage their affairs surprisingly well despite habits like this, but like actual juggling, this is only fun for a little while. It becomes tedious and exhausting.
So, even while you commit to a day of productive procrastination and absolve yourself of guilt, think of the time as a rare gift, like an unplanned day out of school. Enjoy yourself, but be serious about your time.
Because if you really want to galvanize these days and prove they’re useful, there’s one more rule.
The eighth and final rule: Whatever you have put off doing today, you must do first thing tomorrow
This is the winner’s gambit—and this is how you can make deals with yourself to get important things done.
If something just isn’t gonna happen today, and you know it, this sort of gambit is an excellent compromise: a way to work peacefully today and commit to finishing the big task first thing tomorrow—which is, you know, soon enough.
But you have to actually do that dreaded task first thing tomorrow or you won’t get the lasting peace that comes from finishing it. Productive procrastination is already a roundabout way of making sure something gets done; don’t put things off further, or else your day of delay won't have made you any better in the long run.
Or, you know, do what you want. This is a blog post, not a court order.