It’s 9:00 am. You’re sitting down to start work. The elephant in the room, masquerading as a task you absolutely must get done, (by eating it one bite at a time, no less), sits nearby, its long shadow hanging over you. But instead of putting your head down and getting to work on the task at hand, you check Slack. You refresh your email. You follow up on project proposals and late invoices.
Suddenly it’s 11:45. You’ve reached inbox zero, you’re caught up on news, and you’ve even managed to chase down a hard-to-reach client. But that elephant’s still sitting there, unbothered and uneaten. You’ve made no actual progress toward the looming task, and the deadline is creeping toward you.
What’s wrong with me? You ask yourself, defeated. Why am I like this?
As it turns out, you’re not alone. Not even close. All of us fall into this trap at one point or another, some of us time and time again (raises hand!). It may seem like an irredeemable character flaw, but what we’re actually dealing with is the nasty trickery of productive procrastination.
What even is productive procrastination?
Productive procrastination is the act of avoiding work that requires a significant output of effort by doing tasks that can be best described as “busy work.” The term was coined by Piers Steel, and it’s often used interchangeably with “structured procrastination” and “positive procrastination,” though the concepts don’t align perfectly.
For instance, imagine you’ve got to put together a big briefing for the C-suite. But instead of spending your time preparing it, you spend your time working toward inbox zero (big congrats if you get there), organizing your filing structure, or coming up with a list of ideas for a side hustle.
Hey, this sounds familiar…
Like I said earlier, we’ve all been there a time or two. But if this is you all the time, eventually your work’s going to suffer. And, as millennials, we seem to be more susceptible to productive procrastination. Maybe it stems from our seemingly collective desire to want to see and try and experience everything, or maybe it’s related to the increasing amount of stress we’re under. Whatever it is, it’s uncomfortable, frustrating, and exhausting.
So what can we do about it?
Actually, quite a lot. Tactics like setting goals, making habits, and controlling your calendar help make procrastination manageable, and you can use tech to help make it all happen (just as long as you don’t let using a shiny new platform distract you from your tasks).
Set some goals
Having a clearly-defined idea of what you’re working toward makes it easier to say no to things that don’t align with it, even if those things seem productive at first glance. For example, you might load and unload your dishwasher, sweep the entire house, and vacuum the curtains when working from home because the idea of sitting down and getting started on a tough project is intimidating.
Often, this intimidation comes from an element of fear you’ve associated with the project or the task you’re putting off. If you have a clear goal in mind, and your project supports you reaching that goal, it’s a lot easier to make it through the difficult stretches in your work.
But goal setting isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. If you aren’t already setting SMART goals, you’re missing out on the opportunity to turn lofty concepts into achievable targets. The acronym SMART stands for:
- Specific – Clearly define the parameters of your goal, where it begins and ends.
- Measurable – How will you track your progress and know when you’ve reached your goal?
- Attainable – I’m all about shooting for the moon, but if you’re not a practicing Catholic, it’s probably not realistic to dream of popehood.
- Relevant – Does this goal matter in the context of your life? If it’s not closely aligned with your values and ideals, it’s probably not a relevant goal.
- Time-bound – Every good goal has a deadline. Set one, pencil it in on your calendar, and treat it as seriously as you would a commitment to another person.
Turn actions into habits
Once you’ve got your SMART goal, it’s time to focus on breaking it down into actionable steps and then turning those steps into habits. The notion that it takes a set number of days or weeks to turn something into a habit is nice, but it’s more important to turn your attention toward building habits that are sustainable in the long run than to worry about how many days in a row you’ve practiced your good habits. Consistency is key, but rigidity and inflexibility leads to stress and frustration.
The key to setting habits is taking action. But it doesn’t have to be prolonged, intensive action. If you’re trying to start exercising regularly, for example, and you jump in with two-hour sessions at the gym, that’s a one-way ticket to Burnout Town. On the other hand, if you start small and build toward the amount of time and energy you’re committing to a new habit, it’ll be easier to maintain.
So if you find yourself filing away messages and scheduling overdue dentist appointments instead of working on the big project your job depends on, try a different approach than tackling it all at once. Determine what the most minimal step forward you can take is and proceed with that.
For instance, launching a new project from the ground up sounds intimidating, right? But what’s the first step you have to take to make it a reality? Write a proposal. So start there, or even better, just open a new document and title it. That’s it. It works like a pressure release for anxiety that’s built up over making the first move.
When you actively block out time in your calendar to work with serious concentration and focus, that’s time-blocking. It works best if you actually block off that time in your calendar, whether you use a paper planner or a digital platform.
In my case, I pencil in time every Friday to make my schedule for the following week. Then, Monday morning, I’m not tempted to fall into productive procrastination by sorting out my calendar and prioritizing my tasks.
A schedule is only as effective as you make it, so give time-blocking a fair shake by committing to following it for a few weeks. Even if you’re not always perfectly aligned with your calendar, following the general flow of events will help you get free from your productive procrastination loop.
Put tech to work for you
This suggestion’s a little tricky, because new technology “solutions” can also suck your time and attention dry, leading you down the road to procrastination. But, if used wisely, some apps and platforms can make you more productive and help eliminate some of the stress that surrounds taking action.
For getting a clear picture of where your time goes, I recommend apps like RescueTime. If you know how and where you’re spending the majority of your workday, you can more easily make corrections and adjustments (like installing a site blocker extension).
Apps like Asana provide an out-of-the-box project management system, while others, like Notion, let you build your own and customize it to your liking. While it is a matter of personal preference, make sure that you have the time to commit to setting up a custom system before getting started with one. Regardless of which direction you choose, using a project management system to keep up with due dates and tasks helps you to prioritize and track the status of projects so you don’t miss deadlines, compounding your stress.
And, since I mentioned Notion, you can also use it to create habit trackers. A habit tracker, well, tracks habits. Use one to keep a log of how many days in a row you’ve performed the action you’re trying to turn into a habit. Most habit-tracking apps also provide users with daily reminders. Some apps, like Habitica, even gamify habit tracking so you get more excited about working toward your goals.
Don’t let productive procrastination run your day
Procrastination comes from a place of anxiety and fear. Those feelings lead to a sort of “procrastination paralysis” that makes getting started close to impossible. But by setting SMART goals, taking small steps, and blocking out your time proactively, you can kick bad productive procrastination habits to the curb and learn to work (and grow) in spite of your fear.
About Elizabeth Jones
Elizabeth M. Jones is a freelance digital marketing copywriter writing about productivity, professional development, and project management software. She likes rescue cats, video games, and long walks down the stationery aisle. Follow Elizabeth on LinkedIn and Twitter.