Harnessing procrastination for good, not evil

Can’t get started on that thing you know you need to do? It sounds like you are putting it off to me.

No one wants to admit to being a procrastinator. It has a reputation for holding you back, preventing you from being creative and efficient.

That’s right; we have all heard it… procrastination is bad. There are countless blogs and infographics on how to beat it, surefire ways to conquer procrastination, hacks to teach you how to start working (finally!).

Procrastination is formally avowed the arch-nemesis of productivity.

Or is it?

Amongst all the busyness and need for productivity, when do our brains get to take a break to incubate ideas? We all need a lazy day, now and then.

Why not let your inability to get started work in your favour? There is scientific proof that harnessing procrastination in the right context can make you more creative, imaginative, innovative, less stressed and more focused.

So, here are some reasons to make friends with procrastination.

Boost imagination

Relax and let your mind run wild

In his book The Adweek Copywriting Handbook, legendary copywriter and role model Joseph Sugarman suggests the method of generating ideas he calls "incubation process": think of a problem, then postpone it, and do something pleasant instead.

Such a paradox, delaying a task, can help find the best solution. Sugarman is not alone in his support of this tactic.

Jihae Shin, Professor at the University of Wisconsin, designed an experiment to prove the most creative ideas come after procrastination. She asked people to come up with business ideas: one group shared ideas immediately, while another group was asked to play a simple computer game for 5 minutes before sharing their idea.

The procrastinators’ ideas were 28% more creative.

Improve memory

Back in 1927, psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik discovered people remember tasks that they have mentally marked as incomplete or interrupted. The Zeigarnik effect suggests that a started task establishes a particular tension in mind that improves our cognitive accessibility and makes us look for better solutions.

This explains why students who do activities unrelated to study can remember material better than those completing college assignments without a break.

How to use it?

  • Take 15-minute breaks every 50-90 minutes.
  • Use reminder tools or schedule breaks or even better, use focus booster to ensure you take your breaks.

Advance ideas

Procrastination gives us perspective. We have all experienced what happens when you write a long paper in one day. You finish your final proofread, thinking it is perfect, only to return to it the next day to find a bunch of errors and improvements. A fresh look at any idea will allow you to see its flaws and strengths.

According to Gerard J. Tellis and Peter N. Golder, 47% of new market pioneers fail, and only 11% of current market leaders were pioneers when they started. For instance, Facebook launched after MySpace and Friendster, and Google came after Altavista and Yahoo. Being first doesn't mean being best; sometimes procrastination can advance ideas.

Adam Grant elaborates on this idea in his TED talk about surprising habits of original thinkers. The founders of Warby Parker delayed the website launch for six months, which caused problems with investors, but they cleverly used this time to tackle people’s fear of buying online.

They were not first, but their procrastination helped them advance their business idea. Now Warby Parker is recognized as the world's most innovative company, valued at over 1 billion dollars.

How to advance ideas with procrastination

  • Don't grab the very first idea that jumps into your head
  • Brainstorm and iterate on the idea
  • Sleep on it

De-stress

Chill out to get a little perspective on life

Working as many hours a day as possible, with no breaks, causes nothing but stress.

Peretz Lavie, a researcher from Technion, focused on ultradian rhythms and identified that working for 90-minutes and breaking for 20-minutes during "troughs" in the ultradian waveform, was very effective.

Many experts, including CEO of The Energy Project Tony Schwartz, agree with this 90-minute plan for personal effectiveness, short-term procrastination working in your favour!

So…

  • Consider 90/20 cycle of working
  • Supplement it with pomodoro technique
  • Make realistic to-do lists to ensure you meet your goals and remain productive

Create time

“Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.” - Paul Graham

Often you will have work land at your feet that isn’t necessary. By leaving it for another day it becomes apparent it is just ‘busy’ work. As other important tasks come up, it will be relegated anyway.

How to make this trick work on you?

  • Prioritize tasks: Choose 2-3 most important, game-changing tasks and complete them
  • Eat the frog: Do the most urgent and unenjoyable tasks first
  • Don't multitask: Studies confirm that multitasking is less productive than doing a single task)

Be more creative

Procrastination enhances your ability to think creatively.

Why? You are allowing time for free thinking.

Henrik Aasted Sørensen, the inventor of Adblock, wrote the software while procrastinating on exam prep.

"I suppose some people expect Adblock to have been created in a fit of anti-capitalist rage, or as an idealistic effort to return the internet to its less commercial roots," he said to Business Insider. "What actually happened is I was supposed to be cramming for an upcoming exam at university. As a procrastination project, I decided to try out the relatively new possibility of creating extensions."

Be more strategic

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos tries to keep two days a week unscheduled for doing nothing. It helps him create a carte blanche for thoughts and new strategies.

As Wired cites, on these days Bezos “catches up on email, he wanders around and talks to people, or he sets up his own meetings – ones that are not part of the regular calendar."

What have we learnt?

Now you feel better about reading this article instead of doing work, let’s look at what we have learnt.

Procrastination teaches us to find a balance between work and rest, career and personal life but it is important to distinguish productive procrastination from the negative postponement of problems and tasks.

To use procrastination to your benefit, try this:

Interrupt your work in the middle of an idea

Often when finishing up for the day, we try to find a good point to stop. Instead stop in the midst of a sentence, idea, design (you name it!), your subconsciousness will continue to consider them and provide more creative solutions while you rest.

Work in small sprints

Many people procrastinate because of fear of failure, working in small portions will help you get started. Obviously, 15 minutes are not enough to create a masterpiece, but it's a good tactic to make progress. Perfectly complimented by the use of focus booster, I might add.

Find time for deep work

According to Cal Newport from Georgetown University, work can be either shallow or deep.

Shallow work doesn’t demand a high level of concentration, but deep work requires focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.

"Whether you’re a writer, marketer, consultant, or lawyer: Your work is a craft, and if you hone your ability and apply it with respect and care, then like the skilled wheelwright you can generate meaning in the daily efforts of your professional life," Newport says.

Harness deep work

Clear your schedule. Find a time when you can’t be distracted. In a study from the University of California Irvine, researchers learned it takes 23 minutes to get back to the same point of focus after a distraction.

Work on entering a state of flow, when you feel full involvement and enjoyment in the process, and it seems your work is doing itself.

Break over! Now that you have some ideas on how to make your procrastination work for you, it is time to get back to winning at life :)

Before you go, leave a comment to let us know how you make procrastination work to your advantage.

Written by Emily Johnson, the content strategist behind OmniPapers. Emily is interested in how workspace design can encourage motivation and productivity. She loves to share her experiences with others through writing and twitter.