The most insidious form of procrastination…

Everyone struggles with procrastination at times.

Sometimes you just don’t have the energy to work on your important tasks, so you put them off in favour of something more enjoyable. You might, for example, watch a movie when you know you should be studying.

I’ve been there a lot. Everyone has. It’s totally normal.

And the truth is it’s not really a major problem, unless you do it all the time.

When you’ve got important work to do, it’s OK to get sidetracked from time to time, as long as you’re able to catch yourself procrastinating and get back on track.

The problem is that sometimes we don’t actually know we’re procrastinating.

That’s because it’s not just TV and social media that sap up our time and energy. It’s also possible to waste a lot of time on things that appear to be useful work on the surface.

I call this insidious form of time-wasting: “producti-crastination”, because it feels a lot like productivity, only without the results.

It’s easy to fall for, but thankfully it’s also possible to beat.

How do you know if you’re procrastinating?

The good thing is that often our procrastination is obvious.

When you’ve got a paper to write, and yet you find yourself in the “weird part” of YouTube after 40 minutes of clicking through the related videos tab,  you’re procrastinating.

When you find yourself checking Facebook for the 10th time in an hour, even though you know you should really respond to that email from your boss, you’re procrastinating.

When you’re going on your fourth back to back episode of [insert netflix drama], with no signs of slowing down despite other important business you need to take care of, you, my friend, are procrastinating.

But, of course, you already knew that.

In any of these cases, you’re probably not convincing yourself that you’re using your time effectively.

You’re avoiding work, and you know it.

Even serial procrastinators are usually aware when they are wasting time on completely useless things.

But what about if you opened your phone and did a few minutes of Spanish flashcard review. That’s useful, right? You’re learning a new language.

What about if you dressed up a to-do list for the day? Or a plan for your week, your month, the next year. A five year plan could be useful, right?

What about sorting, and organizing the things in your room. Or your inbox. Or your car. You have to do it eventually, right?

The blinds haven’t been dusted in a while…

There’s a friend you haven’t spoken to in ages…

You’ve been meaning to do some reading on SEO, or the stock market, or new yoga stretches, or pure mathematics, or cooking, or your next vacation spot…

You’re not procrastinating now… You’re getting things done!

Important things! (… right?)

Producti-crastination 101. Are you really being productive?

Are those things really that important?

That depends on what other work you have pending, and on the relative importance and deadlines for other items in your queue.

The thing about producti-crastination is that the object of the procrastination is always a useful activity in its own right. So you’re not totally wasting time, but that alone doesn’t mean you are using it well.

The question you have to ask is not:

“Am I doing something useful?”

But rather:

“Am I doing the most useful thing I could be doing right now?”

Those Spanish flashcards might actually be the most important thing you need to be doing, if you have a Spanish exam the next day.

Cleaning your car might be just what you need to do right now, if you are taking it out and picking someone up right away.

But if you are reviewing Spanish vocabulary when you should be cleaning your car, you are procrastinating.

If you are cleaning your car when you should be reviewing Spanish vocabulary, you are procrastinating.

Any time you displace a relatively higher priority action with a relatively lower priority action, even if that lower priority action is, in fact, a useful task on it’s own, you are procrastinating.

But it doesn’t feel like you are. That’s the tricky part.

When you put off important tasks for less important ones, you are still doing actual work, which allows you to feel good about the way you are using your time, even though it is not being spent effectively.

I fall for it all the time.

Here are a few of my personal weak spots:

  • Planning.
    Sometimes I will just sit down with a notepad and jot out a plan for something I’m working on. Maybe it’s a product I want to build, or an act I want to create, or a list of skills I want to acquire by the time I’m 30 etc. Planning is important, and every once in a while, sitting down and writing out a plan is exactly the right task to be working on. Very often, however, it’s not (at least, in my case). This is producti-crastination at work.
  • Studying.
    The Spanish flashcards example above comes directly from my own experience. Using flashcard apps is one of my go-to procrastination techniques. Of course, sometimes it is actually a useful way to use dead-time, like the time you are stuck in a waiting room. But, if I decide to do a little studying instead of something more important I should/could be doing at that time, it’s producti-crastination.
  • Drafting.
    At the time of writing this post, I have 54 post-drafts in my queue waiting to be edited and completed. 54! Why? Because drafting posts is much easier than finishing them. In fact, this is an area I hadn’t even noticed I was producti-crastinating until writing this post. It’s a good thing I did! Looks like I’ve got some editing to do…
  • Reading.
    I’m a sucker for learning. I’m always bookmarking articles for later, or picking up more books at the library than I could possibly read, just in case I find a moment. Reading and learning are very important to me. I would say that they are very important in general. The problem in my case is that I sometimes find myself borrowing a moment from time I should be spending on another more immediately pressing task. The article I’m reading may be very relevant and useful, but if it is not the most immediately pressing and effective use of my time, it is once again producti-crastination.

I’m pretty good about not wasting too much time on the obvious time-traps, like social media and TV, but as you can see, that doesn’t make me above procrastination. I think all of us fall for this trap more often than we should.

A little procrastination isn’t going ruin you, and no one needs to be productive all the time. But we should be able to be productive when we want to be.

Knowing the difference between being effective, and just being busy, is a crucial skill to develop if you wish to waste less time, and get more done.

The thing to remember is that even doing useful work can still be an ineffective use of time, if that work doesn’t contribute to your current most pressing needs.

To avoid the insidious trap of producti-crastination, pay close attention to the way you use your time, especially on which tasks are easy and enjoyable for you and which require more effort and motivation.

Learn to recognize your go-to time-fillers (see my list above for some ideas), and when you find yourself doing those tasks, ask yourself: “Am I doing the most useful thing I could be doing right now?”
(You may even want to write this on a sticky note or poster in areas where you are prone to wasting time)

With a little self-awareness and the occasional reminder, you’ll find that you can beat the trap of producti-crastination, and get much more value for your time.

“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.”
-Michael Altshuler

We all wish we had more time.
The best thing you can do is make your time count.

Know someone who never seems to have enough time? Share this article on social media and help out a serial procrastinator in need.

Have any other ideas to help beat procrastination? Let me know in the comments!

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2 Replies to “The most insidious form of procrastination…”

  1. Really hit the nail on the head Jon. I love your insight, warning signs, and general reminder to stay on track.
    For me personally, a good 60% of my year is open for personal ventures and/or development. This is too much time for anyone to just let slip away. Being entirely results oriented, I have a major difficulty enjoying much without first feeling ‘accomplished’ in my daily/weekly progress.
    Key: Organized/prioritized lists (Evernote app is something to look into)
    Like anyone, now and again I’ve managed to stay ‘busy’ all day without striking a single item off my list, procrastinating the day away. I’m also a master ‘producti-crastinator’ as you say, by continually adding ‘important’ things to my list just so I get the sensation of striking them off immediately after. Not so rewarding when day-end reveals the complete original list.
    Key: Start with Goliath. By prioritizing my list the night before and waking up geared to take down the big guy, before you know it you’ve already won the day, all that follows feels like a bonus and is ‘easy’ in comparison. Guilty pleasures don’t feel so guilty all the sudden, life is simply all the more pleasurable.
    Thanks again Jon!

    1. Hey Rich!
      Thanks for the great comment!
      I like the way you put this: Start with Goliath. I’m not always good at doing this, I admit, but every time I do it I’m happy I did. Definitely a habit everyone should work on. It just makes your day so much more satisfying, and you get way more finished.
      Like you said, it’s always easier if you go to bed having already decided on your “goliath” goal for the next day. When I do that, I feel way more able to get through it early in the day that if I wake up and try to set my priorities in the morning (which for me is always ineffective).
      Thanks for the suggestion on the Evernote app. I’ve never used it, but I’ll take a look.

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