When you find yourself doing anything other than what you should be doing, that's procrastination.
Of course you know the implications of procrastination all too well: the stress of throwing something together at the very last minute, the lowered standard of quality as a result, the constant nagging in the back of your mind.
Here's the thing you should know: procrastination can be immensely good for you, but only if done right. Really procrastination is a psychological response meant to help us in our work: it's just another way of saying "taking a break." It's a period of time in which your work is set aside prior to further attempts to work on it.
When done right, the period of time spent procrastinating becomes one of incubation for solutions and ideas to grow, what many researchers refer to as "strategic renewal." Procrastination only becomes a problem in itself when that "period of time" extends well over what's reasonable, or leads to less productivity overall.
To turn your procrastination into a type of strategic renewal or mental incubation, you need to consider both the type of work you're turning a blind eye to and what you're doing to try and get away from it.
In one 2009 meta-analysis by Lancaster University, researchers learned that certain types of procrastination-like activities can either improve or hinder your ability to get back to work. Knowing the difference between each problem-activity type matters.
According to the researchers, to make procrastination beneficial you need to look at whether the work you're avoiding is a knowledge problem or a strategic problem. Once you've identified the problem type, you can come up with productive ways to procrastinate.
How to procrastinate on knowledge-based problems
Knowledge-based problems are typically creative ones: innovating on a product line, generating new business ideas, or solving new problems in your daily workflow. But they can also be less-than-exciting problems, like stuffing envelopes or filing taxes. Any type of work that involves the creation of new information or accessing existing knowledge in the brain.
Researchers show that the best type of procrastination for knowledge-based problems requires two steps, in order:
- Preparation. Gathering supplies, resources, and inspiration before procrastinating. Where longer preparation periods give a greater incubation effect.
- Incubation. Once everything has been prepared for you to start working, take a cognitive break in the form of sleep, meditation, a walk, or some other task that requires little-to-no mental strain.
Having all of the prepared items still in mind, paired with no competing mental stimulus, will allow your brain to do what it does best and connect the dots almost entirely unconsciously.
How to procrastinate on strategy-based problems
The second type of problem categorization is strategy-based, meaning work that is more about approach and scope than actual ideas. Job interviews, outlining a business plan, or writing a blog post are all examples of strategy-based work.
To procrastinate effectively on strategy problems, research shows that low-level cognitive tasks are best, as they allow your brain to re-organize the information you're dealing with without constraining solutions too much.
Solving a simple crossword puzzle, reading, or even playing video games, are all ways that can help provoke ideas when dealing with problems based around strategy.
This is known as "problem restructuring," where your mind needs to stay sharp on a task, but still distant from it, in order to work through it properly.
If you find yourself procrastinating with no end in sight, first consider the type of work you're avoiding, then think about the right type of ways you could benefit from procrastinating. After-all: procrastination should be a break that empowers you, not hold you back.