Most of us are guilty of procrastination. I call myself an activity-dependent procrastinator. There are tasks that I have no trouble starting and completing ahead of time, and there are others that no matter how hard I try (or how early I start), I still find myself scrambling to meet the deadline. Tax returns, I’m looking at you.
When it comes to my job, I noticed that I was always filing stories just before the deadline, leaving me little time to mull over my draft and possibly make some improvements with a fresh mind. I’d also noticed that my non-urgent tasks were always getting delayed in favor of pressing ones. I end up spending a lot of small snatches of my workday in and out of Twitter, Slack conversations, and news websites. Sure, some of it is part of my job, but in truth, I spent a lot of minutes here and there procrastinating.
I wanted to change this habit, but I knew I would fail if I attempted restrictive approaches like time blocking or the Pomodoro technique. So I decided to try “managing” my procrastination instead. Here’s how I fared.
Stanford philosophy professor John Perry coined the term “structured procrastination.” The idea is that people procrastinate by doing the least important items on their to-do lists, so Perry suggests that we trick ourselves by moving our important tasks down our to-do list and our least important to the top. This way when we procrastinate, we end up actually doing our most important tasks. Unfortunately for me, procrastination usually involves doing tasks that have no place in my to-do list, so I knew this method wouldn’t work for me.
I also thought about just letting myself procrastinate whenever I feel like it, as my colleague Lydia Dishman tried out in 2014, but, well, I’m already doing that and it’s not working.
After spending time in a procrastination research rabbit hole, I settled on a method suggested by habit guru Charles Duhigg. In a Big Think video, Duhigg suggested that instead of denying yourself the urge to check Facebook, only to end up in a downward productivity spiral when the temptation becomes too strong, you should schedule those activities in your calendar so you can fulfill the urge and it doesn’t balloon out of control. To me, that experiment seemed entirely reasonable and achievable.
Method One: Dedicating a Big Block of Time to “Procrastinate”
I hate the feeling of wasting time, so my first instinct was to schedule my procrastination time in big chunks when I’m usually the least productive. That’s half an hour at lunch, and then half an hour at 3 p.m. (when I hit my mid-afternoon crash). For the first couple of days, this worked pretty well. Yes, I ate at my desk, but I could guiltlessly browse through Twitter or read an article without feeling like I needed to check my email at the same time. When my mid-afternoon slump came around, I went for a walk and ran errands. And I even though I technically worked an hour less, I still wrapped up my work at the same time.
Day three wasn’t so great. I had also switched my exercise time from evening to morning, but I was struggling to go to bed earlier to compensate for getting up an hour earlier. As I’ve written before, my focus suffers when I get less than seven hours of sleep. I started the day well thanks to the post-exercise high, but as the high wore off my productive morning turned into a disruptive afternoon. My willpower was weak, and I was back to checking Twitter mid-task and trying to edit stories while simultaneously engaging in Slack discussions. I felt guilty about taking a one-hour break when I felt like I’d been unproductive all day, so I just stayed at my desk. And guess what? I left the office later than usual that day.
Method Two: Spreading My “Procrastination” Times Throughout the Day
On day four, I accepted that I live in the real world–meaning there will be days when I turn up to work tired, even if I do everything in my power to be as well-rested as possible. So I decided to switch the experiment to follow my natural tendencies and schedule “mini-procrastination” breaks between each tasks. Instead of waiting until noon and 3 p.m., I allowed myself 10 minutes between tasks to do whatever I want. I checked Facebook messages, tidied my desk, ordered prescriptions, and made weekend plans. I still took a break, but only for about half an hour. I found myself finishing my work earlier, and one day I even managed to do two extra tasks that weren’t on my to-do list for that day, hurray!
Conclusion: Scheduling Procrastination Forced Me to Take Regular Breaks and Made Me More Productive
I was surprised by how much more on the ball I was with my work when I didn’t feel bad about “procrastinating.” In fact, I realized that I wasn’t scheduling procrastination, I was scheduling breaks. Guilt-free, mentally recharging breaks. And I fared better when I organized my breaks in 5- to 10-minute increments throughout the day, rather than assigning big chunks of time. After all, walking around when you have no errands to run or surfing the internet mindlessly for 30 minutes gets pretty boring
Yes, there were times when my five-minute Twitter break turned into 12 minutes. But there were also times when I seamlessly transitioned from one task to the next without feeling the need to procrastinate first. Duhigg was right, getting rid of the need to fight my urge to procrastinate freed up a lot of space and willpower in my brain–willpower I can use to do productive things like write this article and come up with story ideas.
I realized that being productive isn’t about stopping, or even “managing” procrastination, but about making time for it in my schedule and accepting that’s how I work best. After all, some of us are genetically disposed to procrastination. Rather than spend our blood, sweat, and tears fighting biology, we might as well make it work for us and save our energy for getting stuff done.
This piece was originally published by Fast Company.