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Now or Later? The Good and the Bad of Procrastination

“I’ll do it later.”

“I’ll get to it tomorrow.”

“I’ll wait until next week.”

Do any of those phrases sound familiar? Do they sound like words you’ve uttered in regard to an assigned reading, a project, or a work-related deliverable? From geniuses to, well, non-geniuses – we all have had experience pushing off an item on the to-do list for a variety of reasons (some of which we even convince ourselves are good ones). Regardless of those reasons, our delay tactics all fall into the same categorical bucket, and that bucket is labeled “procrastination.”

But it turns out that some people (remember those geniuses?) do it better that others, and there’s something we can learn from them. Researchers from the Creativity Research Journal took a closer look at former winners of the Intel Science Talent Competition and the way they work. Anna Codrea-Rado, in her article “The Complete Guide to Procrastinating at Work” describes three ways in which the former winners engaged in procrastination.

One procrastinating camp intentionally limited the amount of time they had to work on something in order to build up a healthy dose of motivation (another word to use here is “stress”) – but it didn’t paralyze them from achieving. Another group delayed decision-making in order to engage in an informal “thought incubator” session, which was essentially time spent digesting information before determining a plan of action. Members of the third group took breaks from items on their to-do lists in order to attend to others: “They were procrastinating efficiently and taking care of other responsibilities,” wrote Codrea-Rado. Whoever thought procrastinating efficiently was even possible?

Codrea-Rado refers to a procrastinating expert in the article, psychologist Joseph R. Ferrari, who took up the cause of studying procrastination when it became clear to him that little research had been done on the subject. And here’s a procrastination insight that may be new to you: in the Forbes article “How to Stop Procrastinating,” Susan Adams explains: “everybody procrastinates, but not everyone is a procrastinator.” Is she splitting hairs? It seems not. People who procrastinate can usually be divided into two groups: those who have trouble making decisions, and those who hold off on executing. Fortunately, most all of us fall into either of these two camps. True procrastinators are another story.

According to Ferrari, only about 20% of the population can be categorized as hardcore, hands-down, full-blown procrastinators (he also recommends that those 20% seek out cognitive behavioral therapy: “You can unlearn to do things.”). But that’s good news for the rest of us who could use some advice on burning through an ever increasing to-do list.

Ferrari recommends specific behavioral modifications to all who procrastinate. For example, start – and maintain – a to-do list that’s accompanied by achievable deadlines and goals. For all you constant email checkers, and you know who you are, he’s got some suggestions. They include: only check your inbox once an hour. Don’t even think about actually reading an email if you don’t have the time to spare, and definitely don’t respond immediately unless it’s a matter of urgency. And here’s some wise counsel for the workplace: don’t fret over getting involved in an array of high profile projects – pick a few where you can stay focused and produce quality work. A track record of high productivity and great results will eventually outshine a sparse record with few results of note.

Here’s one more tidbit to be aware of, especially when you have a deadline looming and you have to be extra conscientious of how you budget your time: don’t get caught up in the wrong kind of flow. Codrea-Rado references Professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who has described flow as “being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.” That sounds great, right?  Right?

Most of us have experienced flow at some time or another; most of us welcome it; and most of us wish we could summon it forth with a finger snap during those periods of looming deadlines. But it’s not always possible, and worse, there is such a thing as bad flow, or, flowing on the superfluous. As Codrea-Rado says in her article, “Those cat memes could be pretty bad for you.”

In 2009, researchers at South Africa’s University of the Witwatersrand published a study entitled “Online Flow Experiences, Problematic Internet Use and Internet Procrastination.” Researchers found that study participants can experience flow while engaged in the types of activities that don’t exactly lead to productive outcomes, like tweeting, going on a non-work related email tear, and web surfing. In non-scientific terms, this type of flow is akin to getting sucked into a black hole of non-productivity. Because if you’ve experienced “good” flow then you know that it’s like working in a bubble ensconced in a remote, soundproof chamber. A fire truck may race by; the sky may transition from day to night, and you’d never know it because your laser-like focus hasn’t wavered: you are creating, writing, or calculating – and you feel good afterward because you have something to show for it. But not when you’ve experienced bad flow, which inevitably leads down a dark path of cat memes or YouTube videos.

Will following behavioral changes, like those Ferrari recommends, rid the world of procrastination? We should hope not. As we’ve seen, some forms of it are good and are practiced by some very smart and capable people. That said, there are lots of delay tactics that are simply that: ways to put off something that may not be fun or pleasant or totally enjoyable, but must be done nonetheless. Perhaps some opportunity costs need to be considered. For example, you can either write brilliant Tweets all day (and be the envy of the Twitterverse), or you can tackle the task at hand, one bite-sized step at a time, and make your professors or boss very happy. Or, if you know you can’t take on a big project just yet, give yourself a defined (and preferably small) amount of time to do as much “bad flow” as possible. Get it out of your system. But set an alarm. Bad flow is like quicksand: it’s hard to pull yourself out. But just knowing that may keep you from getting stuck in the first place.

Photo courtesy of Rishibando.

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