Productive Procrastination: How to Feel Good About Avoiding Tasks

Bored lazy student girl hands wasting time playing with pens sitting on a desk at homeI can’t think of a more appropriate visual metaphor for a blog on productive procrastination than the version history of the blog as it was written.

I began to draft the piece on August 26, driven by a desire to have the piece finished well ahead of my mid-September deadline. I returned to work on it on September 1, a little deflated that I hadn’t achieved more, but not too concerned as I still had ample time to finish. Ditto on September 7.

And then September 13 hit, and I realized that my procrastination had pushed me right up against the deadline. I had the majority of the piece written, but still needed sufficient time to finalize it before it went to our internal editor for her inevitable redlining.

So, there I was. Though I was given a generous deadline, I had clearly been distracted by other priorities over the two weeks and suddenly had to shift my priorities.

But why did I procrastinate?

The science of procrastination

It’s probably safe to say that we all procrastinate. Procrastination is so common that there’s a term for those that excel in it—habitual procrastinators—and about 20% of the population falls into this category, according to Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a professor at DePaul University who studies procrastination.

During my research for this piece, I tried to arrange an interview with a habitual procrastinator to get their perspective on why they avoid and delay tasks, but unfortunately, they weren’t able to commit. Instead, here’s a rundown of some of the science behind procrastination.

Procrastination is much more complex than just not wanting to do something. We rarely procrastinate on things we’re looking forward to doing, just on things that we perceive as unpleasant, difficult, or just plain boring.

Why do we choose to postpone actions or tasks that will make our lives more difficult in the future?

Psychologist Dr. Linda Sapadin identifies reasons why by personality type in her book “How To Beat Procrastination in The Digital Age.”

  1. The perfectionist perceives their value based on how their work is judged by others. Procrastination allows the perfectionist to postpone completing an assignment because if it’s not complete, it can’t be judged.
  2. The dreamer longs for a conflict-free and stress-free life. When conflict or stress arises, procrastination allows them to retreat into a safe world for a while, regardless of potential consequences down the road.
  3. The worrier is risk-averse and uncomfortable with change. They are often paralyzed when faced with decisions due to the unforeseen outcomes that decisions could bring.
  4. The crisis-maker thrives on the drama of last-minute pressure, often feeling that’s when they do their best work. This can be effective in the short term, but tasks that need to be reflected on often get pushed through without review. (If you want to see an example of this type of high drama at work, watch this pitch-perfect Aaron Sorkin parody)
  5. The defier has a (healthy/unhealthy) distrust of authority and has learned that procrastination is the safest way to communicate “You’re not the boss of me” without actually shouting at their boss.
  6. The pleaser is often busy so doesn’t always recognize they are procrastinating. They will take on or prioritize additional work to please others, which leads to falling behind on their own priorities, creating stress and burnout.

Regardless of which group you fall into (I would argue all six can be applicable, depending on your mood), habitual procrastination in the legal profession is common.

There are many theories why, including the detailed, complex focus that legal work needs, the deadlines, the protected and unpredictable timelines of cases, or the realities of law not aligning with the reason people became lawyers in the first place.

If habitual procrastination is impacting your work, family, or mental health, I encourage you to read this article from the American Psychological Association as a starting point to understand why it may be happening.

Plot twist

Asian man sitting in bed playing game. The Asian man is getting excited by the victory while playing the mobile game

At this point in the blog, I would typically jump to a section titled “How to stop procrastinating” with a list of proven strategies. Today, however, I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I’d like to offer ways that you can use procrastination to boost productivity when you ultimately turn back to a task.

There is some debate on how long we can stay focused. Even the most optimistic estimates claim that two hours is the limit before we need a 20 – 30 minute break to decompress.

However, how we use that break is important. Do you typically pick up your phone and start scrolling social media? Or maybe open some new tabs on your browser and hop back and forth between websites?

Research has shown that the stream of constant information coming at us through social media and “attentional‐switching” between multiple platforms can influence our cognitive processes. However, if used correctly, the internet and software platforms may provide positive cognitive stimulation. Basically, how you procrastinate matters.

Productive procrastination

To help you procrastinate productively, the Commission has compiled a sample of mobile games and apps you can jump into quickly when you feel that urge to doom scroll, rearrange your desk, or check on that thing that wasn’t important but suddenly really is. The criteria for this list is simple – can you jump in quickly, does it require some creative or critical thinking and is it gamified (i.e. can you get a dopamine hit from it).

The list is by no means comprehensive, but a good place to start exploring:

  • Lumosity (freemium)
    Lumosity provides simple games designed to stimulate your brain through puzzles and problems. Each game takes a couple of minutes and has a straightforward focus that becomes increasingly tricky.
  • Duolingo
    This hugely popular language learning app caters to your level. No, you probably won’t get a UN translator job based on your time on Duolingo, but it is sehr befriedigend (very satisfying) to pick up some phrases you can use to complain about your friends while they’re in the room.
  • Bridge Constructor ($1.99)
    Full disclosure, I find the idea of building a bridge in real life hugely satisfying, although I wouldn’t recommend giving me any critical infrastructure projects. This app allows you to experiment with engineering challenges without the inevitable protracted legal proceedings that would ensue in real life. Why would that be of interest to you? Because solving problems that require experimentation, reflection and iteration is a transferable skill that is essential in a modern professional setting.
  • Wilmot’s Warehouse ($4.99)
    Wilmot’s Warehouse is a bit of an investment, but a great game in production management that may help those who struggle to stay organized.
  • Mini Metro ($3.99)
    Ten minutes on this game will have you standing and applauding all public transport engineers. Mini Metro allows you to design the metro system for some of the world’s great cities, adapting to and influencing usage as you go. FYI, you will get it wrong. A lot.
  • Wordle/Spelling Bee/Letter Boxed (free/subscription)
    The New York Times offers daily challenges that can become a bit of an obsession. Fortunately, they only come once a day and are relatively short, so you can dive in without losing too much time in your day.

I hope you enjoy these suggestions. Let me know in the comments what other productive procrastination you would recommend!


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