The problem with procrastination isn't that you do it. It's that you're probably doing it wrong, and that starts with how we feel about putting off what we feel we should be getting done.
Clinical psychologist Nick Wignall argues that taking a more accepting and deliberate approach to procrastination can actually transform what many of us consider a bad habit into a powerful productivity hack.
"The initial urge to procrastinate is not the problem," Wignall writes on his blog, which is just one productive thing he does despite plenty of procrastinating. "It's all the other negative emotion that we heap on ourselves by thinking of procrastination as a bad thing."
Wignall points out that the urge to procrastinate is normal, but it's often followed by feelings of shame and inadequacy over our perceived inability to stay focused on the task at hand. This can lead to a spiral in which we do something to numb these negative emotions like, say, binge-watching Netflix or spending two hours shopping online for the absolute best deal on the entire internet for a pair of socks (not that I would know anything about such an oddly specific example).
There are people out there who don't procrastinate, I suppose. But the human tendency towards distraction and procrastination is so common and increasingly harder to avoid in a society overloaded with information, stimulation and possibility that we need new strategies to deal with it other than just demanding more will power of ourselves.
Ironically, the idea that succumbing to procrastination is a flaw of the weak-willed and lazy is, itself, a lazy way to think about the problem. The notion that we can simply overpower an aspect of our human nature with another doesn't really even make sense. Do we really want our sense of ambition, fear or whatever it is that drives us to be productive to overpower our natural curiosity, sense of wonder, thirst for connection or whatever it is that sends us to Instagram in the midst of a task?
Instead, Wignall argues for "leaning into procrastination" with three simple steps:
First, ditch the self-shaming.
Most of us have been conditioned to think that procrastination is a symptom of weakness, a lack of focus or some other personal lacking. So when we procrastinate, we automatically engage in a bunch of negative self-talk that leads to feelings of shame and disappointment.
Wignall suggests noticing when you react this way and putting it in perspective by replacing it with an alternative thought like:
"Just because I feel the urge to procrastinate doesn't mean that's who I am or that I can't also be productive."
Next, embrace procrastination.
There's lots of research that suggests our brains aren't really designed to focus on one thing for long stretches. Plenty of writers and other creative types report that they do their best work in spurts and are more productive when they take consistent breaks from focused work.
For me, I just about lose my mind after a morning of writing if I don't then take an hour or so to get outside for a run or a bike ride. When I come back to my desk after that break, I'm refreshed and ready to get back at it.
This consistent allowance for some procrastination time can help avoid longer bouts of procrastinating, according to Wignall.
This also applies to smaller moments of distraction like taking a few minutes to read an insightful article online or checking on flights for that upcoming business trip.
"In my experience, when you judiciously indulge this tendency from time to time, allowing your natural curiosity to wander where it will, you avoid the major need to procrastinate in a big way," Wignall says.
But be smart about what you procrastinate on.
The key to productive procrastination is to make sure that your little distractions are also productive. And you can be very generous in how you define productivity here. Wignall suggests having a pile of books handy that align with your interests. This convenient distraction will offer a more enlightening work break than numbing yourself with cat videos.
Even standing up to stretch or go for a walk is a completely productive form of procrastination since it helps keep you healthy and provides space for reflection on what you've been working on.
"The core idea behind productive procrastination is that we'd all be a lot happier and more productive if we thought a little differently about what procrastination is and what it means," Wignall explains.
And now that you've reached the end of this article and finished a short little session of productive procrastination, you can get back to work shame-free!