Productive Procrastination: How to Get Things Done by Putting Off Other Things

Justin Pot
Justin Pot / Published July 9, 2019

Not to brag, but I'm pretty good at procrastination. I put off writing this article for three whole weeks after pitching it, even though I told my manager and all my co-workers it would be done in a couple of days (and then proceeded to claim it would be done by week's end for three straight weeks). And that's not an anomaly: I put off long-term projects, seemingly indefinitely, all the time.

And yet, I'm still productive. Ask my co-workers: I have a reputation for gettings things done. It's very possible that I've tricked them all, but I think it's because I use procrastination as a tool. I put off one task by working on something else, and the result is that I get something useful done most days—even if it's not the thing I wanted to.

I can't take credit for this strategy. John Perry, an emeritus philosophy professor at Stanford, called this structured procrastination back in 1995:

All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important.

Are you a procrastinator? Here are a few ways you can direct your procrastination to something productive. I even asked my Zapier co-workers for some ideas, which you'll see throughout the article. Together we'll explore how we can all procrastinate more productively.

Plan the Rest of Your Day

I'm not the kind of person who thinks fiddling with my to-do list or calendar is fun…unless there's something else I should be doing. When there's something else I should be doing, organizing my time becomes the most entertaining thing in the world.

So when I don't feel like getting started on a project, I take a few moments to plan my day. On Monday this means making a list of articles I'd like to write, then choosing which days I'll write them. And every morning, I try to block out time for writing between all of the meetings and errands that inevitably end up on my calendar.

Some people call it time blocking. I call it a way to put off actually working for just a little bit longer. But it also seems to keep me on track for the rest of the day, which is nice. To be clear, that's not why I do it—I do it to procrastinate—but it's nice.

The exact details don't matter—you can use any daily schedule system. The important thing is that you avoid working for a while, but also end up with a plan for your day. Who knows? You might even stick to it.

Break the Project You Don't Want to Start into Smaller Pieces

You can use the same approach with individual projects. Getting started on a project is daunting. Breaking it down into small tasks and adding those to your to-do list isn't exactly fun, but it is less overwhelming than working. And it's also useful: When you finally do get around to starting, you've got a strategy.

And generally, while I'm breaking things down, I end up feeling motivated to get started. I'm not alone: My co-worker Andrew sometimes does the same thing.

Andrew: I don't always actually do this, but sometimes I procrastinate because I don't have a good plan for how to tackle something. When I start writing out a plan, I often get through writing step 2 or 3 and it clicks and I'm able to get started on the thing.

Jacob, another of my co-workers, uses an interesting variation on this, where he starts writing a letter asking for help to a problem he's stuck on.

If I'm procrastinating because I'm stuck, I usually start typing out a cry for help in Slack or Stack Overflow. Often times I'll figure out either the solution or at least something else to try before I finish typing the question. This is the case because I'm so afraid of being seen as not having done my due diligence that I think very carefully about specific pieces of the problem which I'd apparently neglected earlier.

The specifics don't matter. The important part is that, instead of staring at your computer and feeling guilty, you're using your procrastination time to build just a little bit of momentum. If you do want to read about a specific strategy for breaking large tasks into manageable chunks, check out the Agile method.

Clean Something

Some people love cleaning. If you're not one of them, I highly recommend cleaning something every time you don't want to get started on a work project. Don't listen to a podcast or turn on the radio. Just clean. Make it as boring as possible, so that your mind wanders.

This does two things. First, it delays actually working on your project. Second, it gives you time to think, possibly generating ideas that will come in handy whenever you get back to the project you're trying to put off. That's the power of boredom: Research shows that doing a mundane activity for a while can prompt creativity, and few things are less interesting than cleaning.

If you work from home, like me and my Zapier co-workers, the opportunities are endless. The entire place is always right there, and there's always something that needs cleaning. But this also works in an office. You could organize your desk for a bit. Or you could head to the break room and do everyone's dishes that they inevitably left there because apparently no one knows how to wash a dish. Your co-workers will think you're a kind and generous person who did something nice just for them. Only you and I will know that you did it just to avoid work for a while, but don't worry: I won't tell anyone.

Tackle the Simplest Part of Your Work for the Day

Every job involves at least a few simple tasks that don't require your full attention, and these make for great productive procrastination. The best tasks for this have a few things in common: They need to get done, they don't require a lot of focus, and they're different enough from your main project that they feel like a break.

I do this all the time. When I don't want to get started on writing a long article, I tend to write tutorials or other short posts (I've written a lot of them in the past three weeks). A number of my co-workers use a similar strategy. Mike, an engineer, tends to his pull requests.

Mike: I review pull requests when I want to put off everything else lol

Jacob tends to his personal finance.

Jacob: If I'm procrastinating because I'm just burned out and need a break, I manage my personal finances. I love reviewing budgets and categorizing transactions in Mint.

These are both things that need to get done but aren't overwhelming or exhausting to the extent that larger projects are. Try to think up similar tasks, then dive into them next time you don't feel like getting started on a big project.

Take a Walk or Do Other Exercise

I take a walk every day, generally around 10 a.m. I'd love to tell you I do this because a study somewhere shows that physical activity stimulates midichlorians, thus promoting focus, but (1) that's not why I take a walk, and (2) midichlorians aren't real; they're literally the worst thing George Lucas ever created.

I take a walk every day because I like it. I enjoy being outside, hearing birds, and saying hello to strangers who are walking their dogs. I also tend to be really miserable on days that I skip the walk. Plus, I usually come up with great ideas while I'm out. My co-worker Thomas also deliberately uses walks when he's stuck.

Thomas: I usually walk for a bit, get an idea for my problem and then head back to implement

This advice applies to any kind of exercise, really. For some, it will be taking a run, a bike ride, or even a swim. Use the time that you're stuck to get up and do something physical for a bit. It's good for you, and research shows that regular physical activity can also help with your cognition.

Maybe Actually Talk to Your Co-Workers for a Bit

Productivity advice tends to boil us down to human machines, who need just the right inputs in order to perform at peak capacity. But you're not a machine. You're a person, which is so much more complicated and better than being a machine.

When you're putting off a project, it's tempting to sequester yourself and avoid talking to other people until you're done. But there's no sense in feeling both unproductive and isolated. Which is why it's a good idea to talk to reach out to your co-workers when you're stuck. My co-worker Noah suggested this, and I think he's onto something.

Noah: if i'm having a day where my brain's just not working right and i'm having trouble getting anything done, i like to catch up with other folks at the company in unstructured 1:1s. i find it helpful to just learn what they're working on and zoom out and get different perspectives

Catch up with your co-workers. See what they're working on. You'll learn something, feel better connected with the people around you, and maybe even find a little bit of inspiration.

Automate Something

Speaking of being a human person: There are probably a lot of things you do every day that a computer could do better. Some people find that scary, but I personally see it as an opportunity to build systems that do parts of my job for me (thus freeing up time I can use for procrastinating).

This is a post on the Zapier blog, if you didn't know, and helping people automate stuff is pretty much what we do. There's something strangely satisfying about setting up an automation to do tasks you'd otherwise be doing manually, which is why it's become one of my go-to procrastination activities.

Curious what that looks like? Here are a few popular time-saving automations you can set up right now.

Of course, Zapier can help you connect 1,500+ apps to each other, so the possibilities (for procrastination) are endless.

Thanks for reading my entire article. I hope it was a good way to avoid work for a while and that you learned a few things. Be sure to read every article on our blog before getting back to work, so you can learn even more.

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