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by Vault Careers | April 12, 2017


Man working on a bike

Despite the countless books, blogs and apps dedicated to helping us stop procrastinating, putting things off for as long as possible is the only way some of us are able to get anything done.

One study found that between 80% and 95% of college students procrastinate, and research by psychologist Joseph Ferrari indicates that up to 20% of people may be chronic procrastinators. He says telling these people to “just do it” would be akin to telling someone who is suffering from clinical depression to “just cheer up.”

So if procrastination can’t be curbed entirely, could it be possible to use it to our advantage?

Frank Partnoy, University of San Diego professor and author of the book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, says the question is not whether we are procrastinating, but whether we are procrastinating well. He explains that there are two types of procrastination: active and passive.

If you’re procrastinating actively, you might be delaying one task, but you’ll still be working on something else that’s important. Passive procrastination, on the other hand, is when you put things off, and then sit around doing nothing at all.

So although passive procrastination is a decidedly negative thing, active procrastination can actually help you get things done. With this in mind, if you have a tendency to procrastinate, here are a few things you can do to make sure you’ll still be productive.

1. Banish the guilt

If you want to procrastinate productively, it should be a conscious decision rather than the result of poor time management. So if you’ve made the decision to procrastinate, don’t waste your time feeling guilty or stressing out about the fact that you’re putting something off.

Instead, put your energy into other useful activities such as tidying your desk, organizing your schedule, taking the dog for a walk or crossing some other important task off your to-do list.

2. Create haphazard to-do lists

When we make to-do lists we usually put the most important things at the top, but the problem with seeing the most daunting task right at the top of the list is that it usually make us want to do anything but that one task.

To get around this mental block, Stanford professor John Perry suggests trying what calls “structured procrastination.” The idea is that by mixing things up and adding a few daunting or even seemingly impossible tasks at the top of your list, which in reality aren’t all that urgent or important, you’ll automatically gravitate towards the seemingly easier tasks that are lower down on your list.

In this way, you’ll be able to use your tendency to procrastinate to trick yourself into doing the more worthwhile tasks you were initially avoiding.

3. Pay attention to your energy levels

We’re all different when it comes to how we work and when we feel most productive. Some of us are ‘morning people’ whereas others feel more productive later in the evening. So by paying attention to your energy levels and when you feel most productive, you can delay tasks until the times when you know you’ll be most likely to get them done.

If you’re not sure when you’re most productive, try keeping a diary for a few days or even a whole week, and write down how you’re feeling at different times of the day, what you accomplished and when.

4. Get creative with it

Procrastination actually has a big hidden benefit, because research shows that when we procrastinate, we’re more likely to let our minds wander, which can help us fine-tune our ideas and be more creative.

This is because when we leave something undone, it tends to stay at the back of our mind even when we’re working on other things. So procrastinating on tasks that require creativity can actually help you stumble onto better ideas and enable you to come up with more creative solutions.

5. Set personal deadlines

For many procrastinators, the pressure of a deadline looming is the only thing that spurs them on to complete a project. In fact, research shows that imposing deadlines reverses the mind’s relation between work and time, and the more difficult or complex a task is, the closer the deadline will seem to us. So deadlines can help us pay attention to important tasks and motivate us to get things done.

With this in mind, if you have tasks to complete that don’t have a specific deadline, set your own and come up with some consequences for not meeting these personal deadlines. This could involve telling a friend so they can hold you accountable or putting some personal incentive in place, such as buying something you like or doing something fun if you do meet your deadline.

Marianne Stenger is a writer with Open Colleges one of Australia’s leading online education providers. She covers everything from life hacks and career development to learning tips and the latest research in education. You can connect with her on Google+ and Twitter or find her latest articles here