If you’ve ever tried to stop procrastinating, and if procrastinating family members or colleagues drive you insane, this post will help you put procrastination in perspective. There are numerous articles written about ways to stop procrastinating (or “stop being lazy”), and substantial amount of money is being made on time management books and classes.
Contrary to the popular belief, though, procrastination can be a great strategy for actually getting things done. The trick is to be able to tell a difference between bad procrastination, when you drag your feet and get nothing done, from the good procrastination, when you actually gear up for serious action. I call the good procrastination The Slingshot Effect. Good procrastination looks like aiming with a slingshot: you take the time to pull the rubber band all the way back, while looking around for the perfect target. When everything aligns, you just let go, at the right time, in the right direction, and your shot is powerful.
“Ms. Bas, your son is not very organized. I give him 10 minutes worth of work, and for the first 9 minutes, he just sits there, doing absolutely nothing.”
“Then, he does the whole assignment in a rush, during the last minute.”
“Does he get it right?”
“Yes, mostly. He would do better, though, if he didn’t procrastinate in the beginning, and had time to check his work at the end.”
I nodded. I wasn’t sure we were dealing in facts there, though. If my son’s results are in the 98-100% range with procrastination, it is not a fact that the results would be a solid 100% without procrastination. It is also not a fact that investing times the amount of “active” time into the project is always worth a potential 1-2% improvement.
My son’s work style, which looks like a lot of procrastination and then a burst of great delivery, is not unusual. You can see it all around you:
– A freelancer spending hours on Facebook, only to deliver a brilliant project to the client at the last minute. He’s being hard on himself in the process: “I’m being paid per project, not per hour. Why waste so much time instead of making an earlier deadline and taking on another project?!”
– A blogger, finding every possible excuse not to write, and then seemingly scrambling at the last minute to submit an eye-catching weekly post.
– An employee, who hardly has anything to show for his daily work, and yet, always, always makes the clients happy with the final product.
– A leader who seems laid back about the project until the deadline is imminent; then, all of a sudden, everything is on fire. The team is dismayed; they wonder why things weren’t paced evenly throughout the project.
This may be difficult to believe for people who prefer steady, visible progress, but many procrastinators know: a lot of unseen work actually happens during what looks like passive down-time.
I know it all too well. My whole childhood I’ve heard from parents and teachers: “See what a great job you did?! Why couldn’t you just do it earlier?!”, even though I delivered everything by the deadline, or just before it. I wasn’t nervous, because I knew that things would get done. My parents and teachers were nervous, though, because they couldn’t have known for a fact that I would deliver, until it actually happened, despite my consistent history of successful deliveries.
“Why couldn’t you do it earlier?!” they would say.
I couldn’t do it earlier because there was project-related work passively happening in my head while I spent time on activities unrelated to the project. That passive work was essential for the final success of the project.
I remember a concerned look on my advisor’s face when we did a dry run for my thesis defense: two days before the presentation, I seemed completely unprepared to him. When the actual thesis defense went brilliantly, I think he visibly exhaled. What he didn’t see (and I couldn’t articulate) was that the defense presentation involuntarily and subconsciously kept rehearsing and re-writing itself in my head as I was taking a shower, playing table tennis, and walking from one class to another.
Some of my friends found it strange that I didn’t have a single page of a research paper written by 11 p.m., while it was due the next day by 10 a.m.. And as you are reading this, I can see some of you squinting your eyes, saying: “Seriously?!”, while others are raising your eye brows, saying: “That’s not too bad, still enough time.”
Your reaction to the paragraph above just gave away your work style.
If you are a procrastinator with a history of delivering outstanding results, you know: to get that paper done between 11 p.m. and 10 a.m. and still get some sleep that night, the research for the paper has had to be already in place, the thesis – clearly articulated in one’s mind, the overall arch of the paper must have been mentally drawn, and the supporting arguments should have been neatly lined up in the back of one’s mind. All of this invisible work did take place. The only thing that was still left undone was typing, and there’s plenty of time to type 10 to 15 pages between 11 p.m. and 10 a.m..
None of the prep work would be evident to the outside observer, and moreover, beyond the pile of reference books with sticky notes in them, I would have difficulty articulating my level of preparedness. But I knew that everything was being put into place. The moment when the research paper was assigned, I gave my brain a task, and gave it space and time to mull over the paper without my conscious interference. When the time came, I demanded of my brain an output.
By now, you’re either saying “I don’t get it”, or “YES, exactly!!!”
For the “I don’t get it” group, clear signs of The Slingshot Effect will help you assess when it’s ok not to worry about procrastination, even if you don’t fully understand the reasons why you (or someone else) is procrastinating. For the “YES, exactly!!!” group, the signs of The Slingshot Effect will give you helpful vocabulary to explain your “laziness” to anyone who is on your case about procrastination (including yourself). So, let me share with you ways to tell the good procrastination, the kind that helps you gear up for action, from the bad procrastination that holds you back.
5 signs of The Slingshot Effect (the good procrastination):
1. You have a good sense of time. You’re not truly shocked or surprised when the deadline rolls around, even if it feels tight in terms of getting things done. You are on top of it, keeping track of time, even though it may look like you’re doing nothing.
2. If you check with yourself during activities unrelated to your project, you can almost hear yourself strategizing for the project somewhere in the background of your mind. You may not be taking notes or making arrangements, but if someone moves the deadline to 2 hours from now, you’ll have something to deliver, and won’t be at a total loss.
3. You have a track record of successful deliveries. Your work process may look and feel untraditional, you may be called lazy or unmotivated, but your track record speaks for itself: when the time comes, you execute masterfully. Go ahead, give yourself that “down time” for strategizing, even if it doesn’t look like other people’s strategizing.
4. You may be stressed, but you are not worried. You may feel pressure to fit in all the pieces of the project on time as time goes by, but you are not worried: you know your work, you know yourself, and you know that you will deliver the results, no matter what.
5. You know exactly what needs to be done. As you are getting closer to the deadline, you are not surprised or blindsided by any unexpected parts of the project that have escaped your attention. You are a strategic thinker, and have had the big picture in mind almost from the very beginning. You have enough experience and resourcefulness to handle unexpected situations well.
So, when should procrastination be worrisome?
Be concerned about procrastination if you keep missing deadlines and opportunities, and if you don’t deliver what you want to deliver on time.
Change your work style if you truly, genuinely hate the stress of your own procrastination. Occasional short-term stress is actually healthy and beneficial, but the constant stress that never eases up is a health risk and a problem.
Reconsider your project if you don’t feel motivated to deliver the result (notice: we’re not talking about feeling unmotivated to Work toward a result, but feeling unmotivated to Deliver the final product). Productive down-time is not happening if you are on the fence about whether or not you will deliver the results. Make a decision: will you get this done, or won’t you? Go from there.
Procrastination is not a “thief of time”, it’s not “opportunity’s assassin”, and it’s not necessarily a bad habit. It’s a mislabeled work style of many successful strategic thinkers. So, next time someone tells you to stop procrastinating and start doing something, remember that you are already doing something. It’s The Slingshot Effect: you are setting up a trajectory for a successful launch.
P.S.: Please visit Skeptic’s Guide to Intuition on Amazon! Thanks!
P.P.S.: If you are thinking of a specific goal you want to achieve in 2014, and may want help, start here.