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February 27, 2015

Think Like a Pro...crastinator

Ruth Hill

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©©GettyImages/Andrew Rich

I can honestly say that writing this blog is the best part of my job. 

As an editor, I spend much of my time tinkering about with other people’s words to make sure that they’re true to the Mind Tools style. But the blog is my time to write, and a chance to bring a little bit of my own style to my work. So why is it then that, when I sat down to compose this week's post, I became restless, and suddenly discovered lots of other little jobs that I needed to do first?

It's a pattern that has followed me throughout my life. I rarely missed a deadline but, at school and university, I would often leave my homework assignments until the last minute.

Procrastinating in this way is widely considered to be a self-handicapping, dysfunctional behavior. But, while this may hold true for all those annoying, unpleasant, or boring tasks that I’d rather not do, I don’t believe that it applies to my blog.

When I'm grappling with a concept, or working on a project that needs careful thought, I find that my ideas need time to gestate. These matters just can’t be rushed. Once upon a time, it was perfectly acceptable to sit around thinking all day - the great Greek philosophers did little else! But few of us have the luxury of living without deadlines, so how can we make time to think, while sticking to a schedule?

I believe that the answer lies in effective, or active, procrastination. In their 2005 research paper, Angela Hsin Chun Chu and Jin Nam Choi distinguished between passive and active procrastinators.

Passive procrastinators feel paralyzed by pressure. They postpone tasks through inactivity or avoidance – essentially aggravating the situation, adding to their stress levels, and sabotaging their own performance.

Active procrastinators, on the other hand, deliberately suspend their actions while they focus on more urgent tasks. This creates the mental space they need to mull over the thing that they’re delaying. These people perform best under pressure, and leave their most important work to the last minute in order to motivate and challenge themselves. But, while they may appear not to be making progress during the delay, their subconscious is hard at work.

According to Professor Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, the most successful performers are those who leave their decision to the very last minute – in some cases, the very last millisecond.

Partnoy observed that these people follow a two-step process that: 1) asks, “How long do I have to do this?” and 2) delays their response until the very last possible moment. This, he says, allows your subconscious mind more time to consider whatever it is that you need to do.

So when we’re working on something big, Partnoy argues, we need to move away from the mindset of rapid response times and embrace the art of delay. We still need the focus and motivation of a deadline, but our performance will be better if we just wait a while.

Unfortunately, in real life, it’s rarely as simple as just waiting, because other things get in the way. This is where scheduling is important. For my blogs, for example, I need to weigh up when it’s due to be published, how long it’s going to take me to write, who else needs to see it and when they're available, and the various other deadlines for all the other, equally important tasks that I need to take care of – not forgetting to leave time for those little emergencies that always seem to crop up when you need them least.

Some people favor Action Plans, or To-Do Lists, but the strategy that works best for me is to give my thought processes a head start by gathering all the information I need, sorting through it, and then setting it aside for as long as I can spare, while I get on with the rest of my duties. That way, when I sit down to write the second time around, my thoughts are ready to flow.

Making time to think can be difficult with a full schedule. What do you do when you need to "think big"?

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9 comments on “Think Like a Pro...crastinator”

  1. "Active procrastinators, on the other hand, deliberately suspend their actions while they focus on more urgent tasks. This creates the mental space they need to mull over the thing that they’re delaying. "
    I definitely fall into this category. Sometimes I berate myself for thinking about something for so long, but when I begin with the task my focus is laser sharp and I'm very clear on what I want to to & why.

    1. Exactly!

      And sometimes, perceived pressure about what others will think influences how much time we allow ourselves, too.

      Books like Malcom Gladwell's "Blink" set up the expectation that we should be able to weigh up all the facts and make good snap decisions, but, as Frank Partnoy points out in his book, this approach has led to some truly disastrous decisions, so don't berate yourself, you're doing a good thing!

  2. The idea of active procrastination suggests that a low intensity effort towards the goal is in motion. However, I find it better to put structure to the writing before rushing out to gather information. A tool such as decision tree or similar can be handy besides, by brain storming early, one gets idea of the scope and likely content to mull over.

  3. It is such a relief to read this article. I have questioned myself over the years as to why I would constantly take such chances with deadlines. Your explanation seems to really make sense, in terms of how things work in my mind. It is as though my mind quietly builds the frame and key aspects of the 'puzzle', so when I do sit to write I have a whole picture to work with. My thoughts can flow. I understand things at a much deeper level, which is more satisfying. Anyway, the whole last minute thing is extremely stressful, but such a buzz, when I manage to beat the clock and nail the task in the last minute! I have got to stop procrastinating!

    1. Thanks Colette for sharing your experiences and your insight. Indeed that 'buzz' you get for getting things done at the last minute can almost be addictive. There is that adrenaline rush for meeting the deadline and the satisfaction for completing it in time. However, I wonder what it would be like to do it well in advance so you are not 'under the gun' and doing things last minute? Could you get addicted to that 'buzz' of relax and chilled approach?

    2. I couldn't have described it better, myself, Colette. Our brains work in mysterious ways - and that adrenalin rush can motivate us to achieve some pretty awesome things.

  4. I think that each of us has a procrastinator inside, moreover both types. But which type will wake up, depends on the task to complete. Sometimes I can be an as active procrastinator as a passive.
    And this is good because it is not always necessary to spend the last effort on the wrong tasks.

    1. I like how you re-frame the idea of being a procrastinator and recognize the differences in your approach! It's all about making conscious choices.

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