Procrastination is bad.
Structured procrastination is good.
Successful people don't procrastinate at all.
Confused yet?! Let's start from the beginning. Procrastination: the ancient art of internally agreeing to do what needs to be done now while simultaneously convincing oneself that it's ok to put it off until later. Most of us agree that this is not a great way to complete necessary projects, and regular indulgence often leads to increased cortisol levels and very late nights.
Structured procrastination: does it work?
Structured procrastination is the new flavour of the month. It's being pitched at those of us who are perceptive enough to know we are procrastinators, and who are willing to try anything as long as it doesn't involve tackling what needs to be done when it needs to be done.
The practised structured procrastinator has parallel to-do lists for each significant project category, both containing essential tasks which will contribute to a good outcome. When the job at the top of list number one is the best next step but isn't looking appealing, the structured procrastinator is encouraged to exercise enough self-control to switch to the number one item on list two, instead of filing their nails, watching tv, or repotting the plants. Switching to a related task that still holds value ensures that progress continues, even when not tackling the most important next step.
This approach can look very appealing, as it seems to allow for simultaneously having and eating one's slice of cake.
Or does it?
Consider the following: everything you do repetitively becomes a habit, forming pathways in the brain that become automatic, and which can be difficult to override. So if you're continually leaving lesson planning or writing reports or filling in forms until the last minute, it's going to get harder and harder to do anything but leave them till it's almost too late. We are the sum of our habits, so it's a good idea to check in and make sure that the software we've written into our subconscious brains isn't sabotaging the ultimate goals of the mainframe. Read more about habits here, and here.
Pros and cons of ordinary procrastination
There are no pros—unless you can count the temporary feeling of relief when you give yourself permission to do the thing that isn't the thing you should be doing—no long term benefits at all, in our opinion. The cons include increased stress as deadlines loom and the reinforcing of negative habits. Read more about procrastination here, and if you've never done it before, learn how here (tongue in cheek, of course).
Pros and cons of structured procrastination
The good with SP is that at least you'll be getting something worthwhile done even when you're putting off the task you know you'll have to get to eventually. Those reports have to be written, so you know you'll do them at some point—even if it's at the expense of a social event or a good night's sleep. On the negative side, remember that you don't tend to read of successful people reporting that they used procrastination as a tool in achieving their goals. If Pareto's Principle holds, then focusing your efforts on anything other than the most important 20 per cent is going to seriously delay progress, if not completely derail it.
What structured procrastination isn't
Many long-term or complex projects have so many parts to them that it can be difficult to choose the most important next task. In such cases it's often a great idea to split your efforts between various task types, alternating between lists, according to that day's available time or energy.
You might argue that this falls under the banner of structured procrastination, but we think there's a subtle but vital difference. SP always involves knowing what you should be doing and having the capacity to do it, then deliberately choosing a related but non-vital alternative.
Understand the projects and tasks before you, then choose wisely! You read that right: your choices are the answer. The choices you make every time you are faced with whether or not to procrastinate—structured or not—will determine the speed at which you attain your goals, and in some cases, whether or not you attain them at all. Here are four ways to avoid procrastination's negative consequences:
- Determine the most critical next step in whatever you're currently facing, and do that thing FIRST
- Keep a running list of every single idea your brain comes up with to convince you that procrastination is a better option (write quickly: no fancy gel pens or Excel tables ;D )
- Be observant: notice when you're procrastinating, and what you tend to do instead; step back and see this process for what it is (not what you wish it were)
- If you're convinced you're hardwired to delay what you know you should be doing—even though you know deep down that you're not—here's a starter list for perpetual procrastination: eating that next unhealthy treat, saying an angry word or snide comment, dropping your clothes on the floor, putting yourself down. In a nutshell: get on with the good stuff, and delay the negative until you forget about it altogether.
Prove us wrong!
Structured procrastination is an oxymoron that has the potential to help in the short-term, but hinder the longer it is practised. Prove us wrong! Are you a long-term structured-procrastinator who is happy with the results? We'd love to hear from you.