Productive Procrastination or How to Love Your Future Self
Updated: May 20, 2022
Is Procrastination Bad Or What?
You know it’s out there, don’t you? That task. That thing you need to do. Maybe you even want to do it, in theory. But to actually…like…do it? To open the file, pull out the project, drive to the gym…that seems un-doable.
But you have to so…right after a few emails…you’ll definitely get it done…
And you should really check in on the news. Oh-wait! How many people liked your last post? Better pull up Instagram…huh…it’s kind of late now.
This is the art of procrastination. That sketchy habit of putting off what needs to be done and replacing it with, basically, anything else.
And we all do it - especially in our own business - when there’s no one checking up on us.
Procrastination is a big ol’ joy suck. It can drain your self-esteem, damage your income, stunt your development, and even injure your relationships.
But even with all that being said, there is one good way to procrastinate. It’s called productive procrastination.
Productive procrastination is sort of a slow-down-and-stew version of problem-solving. It can work wonders when you have a task that’s linked to creativity, innovation, or when you’re breaking new ground.
The trick is telling these two versions of procrastination apart.
In this article, we’re going to figure out what productive procrastination is, what it definitely is not, and how to help your future self benefit from a task well - and sometimes promptly - done.
First, Why Are You Procrastinating?
If you’re struggling to get things done - or maybe just one specific thing - there’s a reason. The go-to explanation for procrastination is usually laziness. But don’t you fall for that old chestnut.
Procrastination isn’t about loafing, time management, or willpower. It’s mostly about emotions. Unpleasant, icky, gross emotions. Whether it’s fear, hopelessness, anxiety, boredom, or overwhelm - putting off a task usually means there’s a difficult feeling tied to its execution.
Our brains are just trying to solve the problem of these feelings. It registers that icky vibe, and it wants to help you out.
“Procrastination is best understood as an emotion-focused coping strategy,” says Dr. Timothy A. Pychl, “We use task avoidance to escape the negative emotions associated with a task...prioritizing the management of aversive mood states over our goal pursuit.”
Your brain is, basically, throwing a blanket on a “bad” emotion.
It thinks, “what would make this feeling go away? Oh - of course - ditching the task.” It sets the task aside, sits down on the sofa and boom! For the moment, your mood stabilizes. Problem solved.
But that’s just the problem of your emotions. The problem of your task is still out there.
And this kind of procrastination creates more trouble down the line. When you re-engage with the task later - as you’ll inevitably do - that gross emotion’s going to come back and it’s going to be a gazillion times worse.
You need to head procrastination off at the pass. A great first step is calling it by the right name - Mood Regulation - and deal with procrastination in that way.
Before you turn on Netflix when you should be working, ask yourself - what is this really about? What’s the feeling I need to manage right now? Am I frightened, resentful, overwhelmed?
Stick with the feeling until you get a true answer. Don’t let procrastination off the hook.
Productive Procrastination or Just Chore-crastination?
But what if you don’t flip on Netflix? What if you do the dishes? What if you answer emails? What if you straighten your desk and make a dental appointment?
You’re not a lazy person. You’re a busy person. What if you’re getting things done. Isn’t that productive procrastination?
Don’t fall for that either.
Your brain is just being very crafty. It knows you won’t fall for the lure of the TV anymore. It knows your identity is too immersed in taking care of business. But it still wants to opt-out of those uncomfortable emotions.
So, it creates chores.
Commonly called “chore-crastination,” this brand of procrastination is the process of putting off a priority in favor of some lower-level task.
For instance, I had a roommate who cleaned the apartment to avoid studying. Our place was spotless during exams but it didn’t help her grades. Still, as mood-regulation went, it was brilliant! She got a sense of being busy without having to face the dreaded task.
Chore-crastination is an imposter version of productive procrastination, and you’ve gotta call your brain out on the elaborate BS.
The moment you start dusting a bookcase for the third time, say to yourself, “this is a lie.” Ask yourself again, “What am I afraid to feel?”
Your Future Self
There are a lot of good procedural tips out there for dealing with procrastination.
Break the big tasks into smaller tasks
Pick one thing to focus on
Create external commitments
Link the task to a reward
All great points. You should do them. But I want to add a subtler to-do to the list.
Have some compassion for your future self.
Studies show that it’s hard to prioritize a theoretical self that’s far away in the future. Today’s whiney, self-indulgent, procrastinating self is always winning that tug-of-war.
One suggested workaround is to imagine a future you. But not a you that’s twenty years down the road. That’s too far away. Think about someone very close to who you are today. A twin. A best friend.
“Your future self is almost you, but not quite,” says Psychology Today, “In several ways, your future self is another person, with different desires, a different mood, and a different set of problems.”
You need to picture a you that’s just a few days in the future. Consider their needs. Get protective about them. What you do today can help them out or hurt them. You can support them or abandon them. You can take care of them or be cruel to them.
Then, act like your future self is counting on you today - because they are.
Productive Procrastination, Now That’s A Superpower
From time to time, you might feel a hesitancy to work that’s…different from the usual procrastination.
Maybe you’re making something new. Maybe you’re solving a complex problem and you want to think way outside the box. It feels wrong to say, “I’m going to innovate Tuesday between 1-3 pm.”
This could be the glimmer of something very different - productive procrastination. And it’s awesome.
“Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional…” says Organizational Psychologist and Author Adam Grant, “When you procrastinate, you’re more likely to let your mind wander. That gives you a better chance of stumbling onto the unusual and spotting unexpected patterns.”
Giving yourself the freedom to inhabit an open, complex problem allows for new observations - serendipitous combinations, novel angles, rogue ideas. This is procrastination at its best.
Some innovators actually schedule productive procrastination. This means time to free-write about an unresolved issue or just writing a question down and taking a walk.
Some use productive procrastination by meditating on their large ideas. Some draw, swim, listen to music - anything that puts their mind at ease and creates open space.
The only thing you shouldn’t do when productively procrastinating is use a screen. Your brain needs to build, not consume. Let your creative factory have full, unrestricted play. But don’t zone out.
Next Tuesday - You
The point is, procrastination - most of the time - is kind of like a quiet self-destruct button unleashed on your future self.
But if you get honest with yourself, don’t fall for your brain’s white lies, and make an effort to care about the you that’s due to arrive next Tuesday - you’ll likely see a shift in how you make things happen.
And remember to pencil in some productive procrastination next week too. Your “Next Tuesday You” has some big ideas as well.
Once you're done with the best part of your week, your productive procrastination time… duh, come hang out with me on IG and share what you came up with.
Psychology Today, How Negative Thoughts Relate to Procrastination, Timothy A. Pychyl PhD
National Library of Medicine, Future Self-Continuity: How Conceptions of the Future Self Transforms Intertemporal Choice, Hal E. Hershifeld
The New York Times, Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate, Adam Grant