How to Become a Better Procrastinator

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"Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow." — Mark Twain

Procrastination is sometimes called the putting-it-off disease. Hara Estroff Marano explains that 20 percent of people identify themselves as chronic procrastinators. These putting-it-off’ers fall into three categories: thrill-seekers who put things off to the last minute because they enjoy the euphoric rush; avoiders who fear failure and prefer to be viewed as lacking effort than lacking ability; and decisional procrastinators who simply can’t make a decision.

By contrast, Paul Graham thinks in terms of good and bad procrastination. The distinction is in terms of what you could be doing instead of the thing you’re putting off doing. Are you doing nothing, something less important, or something more important? That last type, he contends, is good procrastination.

If you want to control your procrastination, Jody Gilbert suggests breaking the work into manageable pieces, either treating each piece as a discrete task or working on a task for a specified amount of time and then stopping. One of Gilbert’s favorite tricks:

Stick your toe in the water a tiny bit, with the promise that you’ll quit after a few minutes. This might seem like you’re teaching yourself an even worse habit (quitter!!). But what usually happens is that those few minutes prime the pump. Once begun is half-done, and all that.

Timothy Pychyl found the same: Once you start a task, it's rarely as bad as you think. In a study he found that

On Monday, the dreaded, avoided task was perceived as very stressful, difficult, and unpleasant. On Thursday (or make that in the wee hours of Friday morning), once they had actually engaged in the task they had avoided all week, their perceptions changed. The ratings of task stressfulness, difficulty, and unpleasantness decreased significantly.

His advice, then, is just get started. Once you’ve started, the task will seem less aversive than when you avoided it. Even if you don't finish the task, you’ve done something, which can help you feel more in control and more optimistic.

And really, if you’re going to be a procrastinator, you might as well be the best possible procrastinator. According to John Perry, that means not listening to most of the advice offered by non-procrastinators, such as keeping your commitments to a minimum. It's actually better to have lots of things to do, so you can work on them as a way of not doing the task that you’re avoiding.

For myself, I rarely get as much done as when I'm putting off doing something I don't want to do. When I finally face the dreaded task, I complete it in less time than if I'd started earlier for the simple reason that I have no choice. So putting things off actually saves time. (Do you like this reasoning?)

If all else fails, check out this delightful video on procrastination. It’s only a minute and twenty-one seconds, but hey, that’s another eighty-one seconds that you can procrastinate.

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Naomi Karten

Naomi Karten is a writer and speaker who draws from her background in both psychology and IT. Naomi's recent books are Presentation Skills for Technical Professionals and Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change. Readers have described her newsletter, Perceptions and Realities, as lively, informative, and a breath of fresh air. Naomi is a regular columnist for StickyMinds.com.