I’ll readily admit to something that no business owner should ever admit to: I procrastinate. A lot.
Related: 11 Ways to Beat Procrastination
Some days, I can work 10 hours straight. Other days, I just can’t do it. I might get up at dawn, promise myself I’ll start working by noon and actually start several hours later. When that happens, I might end up finishing work after midnight. Occasionally, I'll feel bad about it.
Who wouldn’t? Procrastination is demonized by everyone from our parents to our bosses. After all, “procrastination is the thief of time.”
Yet nearly all of us procrastinate regularly. In fact, 85 to 95 percent of all students procrastinate, and 20 to 25 percent of people in the United States may be chronic procrastinators. Does this mean we’re all deadbeats?
I don’t think so. I’ve been reading a lot about positive procrastination lately and comparing it to my own experiences. Here’s what I’ve discovered:
1. Procrastination is often misdiagnosed.
Here’s something I’ve slowly come to realize over years of being called out for procrastinating (which I’m sure many of you can relate to). The people who call out others may not be receiving the same criticism themselves. Sometimes, it’s because they’re productivity machines.
Other times? It’s because they don’t have as much work to do. It’s a lot easier to cross off your priority list each day and judge others for their perceived procrastination when you aren’t nearly as busy. Don’t believe me? According to some studies, the average worker is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes per day.
In other words, you’re unlikely to be labeled a “chronic procrastinator” unless you're actually working a lot more than the average person. If this sounds like you, then maybe you’re not actually a procrastinator. Maybe you’re just too optimistic.
Or maybe you are a procrastinator, which still might not be a bad thing.
2. Procrastinators can be highly productive.
John Perry, a philosopher at Stanford, spent 17 years researching and writing a book on procrastination. It all started when he realized that, despite how he’d been made to feel about procrastinating his entire life, he was actually very productive most of the time. The thing is, “procrastinators seldom do nothing.”
Perry credits the late humorist Robert Benchley with helping him see the forest for the trees. “The secret to my incredible energy and efficiency in getting work done is a simple one,” Benchley once wrote. “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”
My hunch is that people who say that they can multitask aren’t really multitasking; they’re just constantly putting off “big” tasks and completing the ones that are slightly lower on their priority list. They get so much done not because they’re constantly shifting priorities, but because they’re constantly avoiding deadlines.
Speaking of deadlines . . .
3. Deadlines can make anyone laser-focused
I remember, when I was in college, pulling all-nighters all the time. I wrote several term papers the night before they were due and got A's on every one of them. I don’t say this to brag, but to point out another inconvenient truth about procrastination: It forces you to put your nose to the grindstone and get things done in a huge burst of hyper-productivity.
The obvious counter-argument to waiting until the last minute to do an important task is that the quality of work will suffer. I beg to differ. I can honestly say I’ve done some of my best work and have been at my most creative when I've put things off. Nothing is more motivating than an important deadline looming on the horizon, especially when a lot is at stake.
Procrastinating until you absolutely have to make some serious moves can energize you, force you to focus for an incredibly sustained period of time, be more efficient and get several days’ worth of work done in several hours. I am not exaggerating here. Remember, the average worker is only productive for less than three hours per day.
4. Procrastinators can take advantage of their habits.
Want to know a secret your boss doesn’t want you to know? Many executives and business owners are procrastinators who overcommit. They aren’t able to finish their work on a daily basis, and end up putting off a lot of priorities, too.
That’s why, over 100 years ago, Charles M. Schwab paid productivity consultant Ivy Lee what today would equate to $400,000 to teach his executives this five-step productivity hack:
- At the end of each workday, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish the next day. Do not write down more than six tasks.
- Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you arrive the next day, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second one.
- Approach the rest of your life in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
Notice anything interesting? This was a $400,000 to-do list for executives, and step three directly addresses procrastinators. In other words, every one of us procrastinates and can't finish everything we want to on a daily basis. I independently arrived at a similar productivity method myself precisely because I procrastinate regularly.
That being said, when left unchecked, procrastination can lead to serious problems.
5. Procrastination may point to a deeper issue
There’s a reason procrastination is almost universally seen as a bad thing: It can cause you to make less and even lose money. But so can consciously making a decision to work four days a week instead of five. In either case, you are making a concerted effort not to do as much work as you are doing right now.
When you feel a spiritual unwillingness to do something, whether that be a task you do on a daily basis or a huge project that daunts you, examine what’s causing you to feel that way. Sometimes, you are just being lazy.
Or, maybe you’re procrastinating as a way to cope with constant stress, and something needs to change. Only you know that your work is beginning to bore, frustrate or sadden you, the only solution will be different work (and maybe even a different job).
Why do you procrastinate?
Remember: Being a procrastinator doesn’t mean that you are less productive, just that you are productive on your own terms. In fact, you could very well be misdiagnosed. You may procrastinate because you’re too optimistic and ambitious. As a result, you often commit to and take on more work than any sane person would. I do it all the time.
But maybe you procrastinate because you are really stressed out about some aspect of work. Perhaps you’ve suspected for a long time that your job just isn’t right for you, but don’t see a way out of it. Maybe you really don’t get along with your manager.
Whatever the case, only you can figure out what makes you procrastinate, and what makes you productive. It’s important to come to terms with what makes you tick at work and in your personal life, and then build an action plan based on your needs.
Related: 5 Ways to Battle Procrastination
So, are you a positive procrastinator? Or are you just plain lazy?