Strategic Procrastination

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn't the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

Those words (by Robert Benchley) are basically my mantra. I'm a chronic procrastinator, and for years I bought into the lifehackery promise that procrastination was something I could beat, something I could overcome, something that, given the right tools, I could eradicate from my life.

Unfortunately, none of the fancy lists, schedules, notebooks, time-trackers, prioritization aids, pomodoros, or other tools I've tried have done anything but provide temporary respite from my procrastinatory habits.

Chastened by my experiences, now I treat my procrastination as a chronic condition to be managed, rather than a disease to be cured (but feel free to email me your magic cure; I'm happy to try it).

The trick to managing your procrastination is to always have a completely unrelated useful and high-value task to turn to. (I know, obvious, right?) But so often when you're procrastinating, you think "Oh, if I can't make progress on INSERT NAME OF BIG ANXIETY-PRODUCING PROJECT HERE, I might as well binge-watch this ten-year-old television show/read all of Twitter/look for second-grade classmates on Facebook/research a disease I think this historical figure had ..." (You get the idea.)

Unfortunately, the same bad cognitive habits that lead to procrastination also blind us to those high-value procrastinatory tasks. So the goal is to have an easily-accessible never-ending list of no-deadline side projects to act as pressure-overflow outlets for procrastinatory behaviors.

A blog is the perfect procrastination outlet, but other great procrastinatory projects include:

  • a parody Twitter account
  • a writing project (e.g., a novel, a tutorial)
  • a personal website (you can ALWAYS update your personal website)
  • a code library (but not one you need for work)
  • contributing to open source, especially documentation
  • any project that requires you to collect and curate a vast number of images

And so on. Obviously, you don't want to have these side projects take over your life—they should just act as anxiety-absorbers for your procrastinatory tendencies.

The perfect strategic procrastination outlet should be a quick distraction from the thing that is driving you to procrastinate, should have tasks that can be fit into half an hour or so (the ideal length of a procrastination session), and should be something that you want to accomplish anyhow, and that makes you feel good when it's done.

If you're not in a creative mood (or perhaps that's what makes you anxious!) other great, quick strategic procrastinations include:

  • writing a paper postcard to a friend you haven't talked to in a while (paper is ideal because it's asynchronous and you won't get sucked into an all-afternoon Facebook exchange, plus, everyone likes to get mail!)
  • sending a note to your congressperson or other official about a cause you believe in
  • putting a favorite song on high volume and tidying your immediate surroundings for the length of that song
  • any physical-therapy type exercises (wrist stretches, etc.) that don't require a change of clothes or equipment

Strategic procrastination doesn't require you to be a superhuman task-focused machine. It helps remove the catastrophic thinking that leads to "What the Hell Syndrome." (i.e., "I'm not working on the BIG THING, so what the hell ... let me do something pointless where I'll feel even worse afterwards!")

Practicing strategic procrastination does require that you to be able to identify and choose tasks that advance you towards SOME long-term goal. You also need to be able to limit yourself to working on those tasks for half an hour or so at a time—enough to make perceptible progress and let off some procrastinatory steam. You don't want to embark upon the half-hour of tidying that leads to the full afternoon of rearranging your office, or the quick update to your personal site that turns into a full redesign. And you can't use those tasks as an excuse for a further "break" (that is, you can't say "yay me, I updated my personal site, so now I can read Twitter for an hour")!

The best thing about strategic procrastination is that, judo-like, it uses your bad habits as a lever to make good things happen. If it weren't for strategic procrastination, I never would have published a novel, or written an npm module, or set up the Vintage Pattern Wiki, or launched (just this past weekend, while suffering from a summer cold and procrastinating about writing THIS VERY ESSAY) the Semicolon Appreciation Society site.

But I still haven't finished watching The Gilmore Girls.

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