How to Procrastinate Properly to Improve Your Life

A brief guide to productive procrastination: Some kinds are fatal to useful endeavor but there’s one kind that’s a must

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Procrastination has a bad name but there's one form that's actually essential.
Procrastination has a bad name but there's one form that's actually essential.Credit: Nicoleta Ionescu / Shutterstock

I will start with a confession: I procrastinated about writing this article for months. Postponing it put me in good company. The statistics are simple: 100 percent of people are guilty of procrastination.

This habit, so often maligned, comes in different forms. Two forms of procrastination deserve their bad reputation, but there is a third that is not only positive, but essential to personal growth.

The Across-the-board Procrastinator

We all know someone who puts off any task or goal-oriented effort whatsoever in favor of immediate rewards: watching Netflix, clinging to the bed for another hour or two, or hanging out with friends. There is nothing wrong with any of that, which besides giving us joy, can help avoid burn-outs. It’s when they systematically come at the expense of any sort of productive work, from everyday chores to long-term projects, that the Across-the-board Procrastinator is born.

It is tempting to call this behavior sloth, but that is not always accurate or fair. Apathy towards productive work can be a sign of anxiety or depression. In such cases, we are likely to suppress any thoughts over tasks that out to be done or goals to be pursued, to which there seems to be no point and, often, no end in sight.

To overcome Across-the-board procrastination, one practical trick is any sort of “supporting activities” such as cleaning up the room, tidying the work area, or going out for a jog. From a neurological perspective, the dopamine spike we get after finishing even small accomplishments basically reminds us what it feels like to win.

Goal Procrastinator

Another form of procrastination is putting off goals. If the Goal-Procrastinator were to rank her tasks based on aspiration and compare the list with a ranking based on prioritization, she would find very different lists.

What is truly important to her she neglects, instead taking care of what is currently “necessary”. She cleans up the house like it’s Passover every day, sends a birthday wish to Naomi a friend of a friend, does a boring assignment way ahead of time “just to get it over with.” Meanwhile, the dream startup, the book she always wanted to write, or even the test coming up, are procrastinated like a pro.

Why do we sabotage our own aspirations? Mainly because we are scared of embarking on an energy- and time-consuming journey, outside our comfort zone, whose path is foggy and whose outcome seems beyond our control.

The brain’s reward system is drawn to tasks that have a beginning, an end, and a clear reward. Like our Biblical ancestors who constantly slipped back into idol-worship, we like the concrete; the abstract makes us anxious.

Even if their reward is meager, low-risk tasks are tempting for three reasons: they grant a sense of accomplishment, provide an excuse for postponing daunting endeavors, and “prepare the arena”: the Goal-Procrastinator deals with the marginal so she may tackle her primary goal with a clear mind and optimal conditions. An extreme version of this reasoning is engrained by society in each and every one of us when we say, “when I retire and the kids leave the house I will finally do what I really want.” The problem is, marginal tasks never end.

Margin Procrastinator

Finally , when the prioritization of tasks conforms to one’s aspirations, we witness our third and final procrastinator: the Margin Procrastinator. So long as prioritization is part of our everyday lives, procrastination is a necessity, and a tool to be mastered.

The Margin Procrastinator is focused, letting secondary tasks wait and not trying to control everything. She will put aside that assignment due in two weeks to the eleventh hour, in order to dedicate the time for research into her dream business; instead of fixing the wobbly shelf, she will stick to her one-hour-of-writing-a-day schedule, which might or might not lead to a published book in a few years.

This form of procrastination however has its own caveats. Neglecting supporting activities such as exercise and orderliness, or marginal tasks such as dentist appointments and visits to the family, can take its toll both on body and mind, and even reduce productivity.

A healthy Margin Procrastinator has a bit of a Goal Procrastinator in her: she knows life is not a sprint, but a marathon.

Being a Margin Procrastinator is no easy feat. It requires a mindset that overcomes the obstacles in the way of the Goal Procrastinator. Self-confidence and optimism are essential alongside vanquishing the fear of failure, in order to invest yourself in something uncertain, riddled with unpredictable challenges, in which you might just win – or lose – and it will be worth it.

Margin Procrastination requires us to trust that pursuing our dreams will have more benefits than drawbacks for what matters to us, be it happiness, family, duty, or otherwise.

How can we progress from the first two forms of procrastination to Margin Procrastination?

First, it is important to make your projects concrete: clearly defining your goal helps trace a path to it. This path should be broken down into the smallest sub-goals possible: this reduces anxiety and increases motivation as you progress from small reward to small reward.

Second, instead of waiting for spare time, make your pursuit part of your routine. Aristotle said that virtues are habits… well, so is self-fulfillment. Habits require consistency, and consistency requires prioritization: procrastinate what you can to maintain that routine.

This brings us to the next tip: accepting chaos. The Margin Procrastinator indulges a certain degree of disorder, and trusts that things will fall into place. Nor does she try to please everyone, which all too often leads to putting on stand-by our own needs and wants. Of course we have responsibilities towards others and towards ourselves, but it’s about finding the golden mean. Above all, it’s about recognizing what truly matters to us.

The author is a cognitive neuroscience research student at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

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