Procrastination, I’m going to assume, is a modern phenomenon. When humans foraged off the land you couldn’t put off going out hunting in favour of colour-coordinating your collection of animal skins, or you’d starve. On an industrial production line, the entire factory would grind to a halt if one person decided it was suddenly super-important to find out whether it was in 1992 or 1996 that Atlanta hosted the Olympic Games.

But in the information economy, procrastination is everywhere and embedded in everything. It seems like we’ve neutralised all our natural enemies, so now every day we mostly battle ourselves.

Well, I’m going to stand up for procrastination (when I get around to it). Because I believe it might be horribly misunderstood, and actually it’s trying to help us.

Procrastination is your gut telling you something

Procrastination is “self-harm” according to one professor, “essentially irrational” according to another, and an “emotion regulation problem” if you listen to a third (all quoted here).

Maybe. But I prefer to think of procrastination as giving us important clues – if we just listen to them – that our conscious minds don’t have access to.

We can only consciously access a tiny fraction of all the data our brain is processing. In the background, it’s processing feelings, memories, associations and incoming sensory information without us having any conscious awareness of it.

A “gut feeling” is actually the output of some of that processing. Because it’s happened unconsciously, we don’t have any insight into the thought process – so when the output pops up in consciousness, all we can do is label it a “feeling”.

So it’s worth listening to gut feelings, because it’s likely that far deeper processing and more data has gone into formulating that “feeling” than anything you ever consciously think about.

I see the urge to procrastinate as an example of a gut feeling: our brain telling us “hang on a minute, I’m doing some work on this in the background and something doesn’t seem right”.

Productive procrastination in action

This is all a bit abstract, so here’s a real example.

I once spent a couple of weeks failing to arrange a date for a photoshoot with a national newspaper. I arrange dates for things multiple times a day, and it’s not a big deal. This photoshoot was for a story that would’ve given me two pages in the paper to myself – an invaluable piece of PR for my young business.

By any normal interpretation, my procrastination was totally irrational and self-harming. Here was a great opportunity, and my inability to motivate myself to do something extremely simple was jeopardising it!

But eventually, on reflection, I realised that I didn’t want the article to run. It was going to reveal more of my personal story than I was comfortable with, and make out that I’d achieved something impressive – and that whole look-at-me-ness isn’t something I wanted.

My gut had realised this long before my conscious mind was let in on the secret. Without the photoshoot, the story couldn’t run. Not setting it up, as it turned out, was exactly the right thing to do. By listening to my procrastination and realising this, I could do the right thing and cancel the story (apologising to the journalist, of course) instead of getting angry and forcing myself to do the admin.

Searching for the underlying reason

So one reason you’re procrastinating might be deep-seated, can’t-articulate-it knowledge that it’s not the right thing to do. There are other reasons too, none of which I’d describe as “irrational”:

  • You’re scared of doing it and failing
  • You’re scared of doing it and succeeding, which might take you out of your comfort zone
  • It involves doing something unpleasant, even if the eventual result will be worth it
  • You don’t know how to do it
  • It feels too big and daunting to know where to start
  • It’s for your benefit, but you’re prioritising things you feel you need to do for other people

Rather than berating yourself for being lazy or self-destructive, the best thing you can do it look at the tasks you’ve been putting off, and try to understand the underlying reason. Once you know that, you can do something about it:

  • Scared of failing? Re-frame it so the outcome doesn’t matter, and success is in the process
  • Feels too daunting? Break it down into a series of smaller tasks and tackle them gradually
  • Don’t know how to do it? Work out just the first tiniest step, and do that – even if the first step is just asking someone what the first step should be

And so on.

In other words, stop assuming that procrastination is some global character flaw. Instead, get curious when you notice it and look for the underlying cause. When you pair procrastination with self-knowledge like this, you’ve transformed it into a tool that will help you solve future situations – maybe even by anticipating them before they arise.

So, y’know, maybe stop procrastinating by reading articles on the internet and go do that.

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