You've been trying to stop procrastinating for months, years more likely, and you just can't seem to break the habit. You think you're a procrastinator and that you're never going to change? But you're still doing all sorts of things. You completed all the quests in that game, you went to every board game night, you've read __all__ the things and cleaned __all__ the things. You don't just sit there doing nothing, but you just can't seem to do what is most important. Sound familiar?
Procrastinators are not necessarily lazy, but they're really really good at creative avoidance: finding any conceivable way to do marginally productive things that are varying degrees of useful but not crucially important. And there's lots of reasons to procrastinate. Things could go wrong, or maybe even worse, they could go incredibly right and then you'd have even more stuff to do.
Assuming that you are a procrastinator (and frankly, who isn't sometimes) you probably dream about quitting the habit and being both super productive and happy about it all the time. But to get there you have to change. But what if you could get there without having to change? You're good at procrastinating, you've spent all this time practising it. Why not use those excellent skills of convincing yourself something is more important in your favour instead of against yourself?
The trick is called Structured Procrastination, and it came from a Stanford professor in 1996 but still rings true today. The core of it is to make a list of all the things that you should be doing (projects or ideas that are a priority in your life right now), then rewrite that list in descending order of importance, but with a little twist. And you can waste a lot of time procrastinating making this list too - because procrastinators are often amazing planners because it keeps them from getting to that scary step of "doing". But you're actually really good at doing, just not the things that you "should" be doing.
The twist is that you need big, important, scary projects to put at the top of your list. Your biggest, scariest goals that you would really love to achieve but have had no luck in restraining your procrastination against. It's best if these are not too specific, but an umbrella goal that sums up a whole bunch of smaller steps. These prioritiess benefit from having a deadline that's vague and not too pressing, and fall firmly into the categories of things you "should" do. I normally advise to avoid the use "shoulds" language at all cost, treating them as swears, but in this case they will actually work for you.
Here's an example from where I'm at right now:
So obviously, I'm not doing what I should be doing right now, but I'm doing something that is somewhat Important. And that's the key. You want to be productive, you really do want that, and as long as you're doing something Important*, you still are using your time well to a lesser or greater extent.
* = With Importance and Urgent in this article, I am referring to the Eisenhower Matrix method, a common prioritization tool.
Writing that book is my big goal that I believe will have the greatest positive impact on my life, but it's also a big project and has no specific deadline other than my self-imposed 'one day soon'. Okay, so I do really want to do that, but I'm gonna put it off and do other things. The other two I've added here are ranked in priority, and I've chosen to do a lower priority one because it's more fun and related to the headspace I'm in right now. Every time I look at my list and get that familiar dread that triggers a procrastination response, I have a nice tidy set of opportunities to make my life better. So the result of this approach is that you're still working, but not giving up a bit of that procrastination habit, just redirecting it skillfully. This is a balance that you will have to negotiate with yourself. I would recommend gamification to keep track of how you're doing by awarding yourself a number of points that increases with how far up on the list the completed priority was. Then reward yourself at a certain goal of points, or just be proud of how focused or achieving you are. You moved all those atoms around in an incredibly coordinated manner with nothing other than electricity jolts dancing about some grey mush in your skull! That's pretty incredible that you managed to do anything at all, so celebrate your accomplishments.
At the top of your list will be your big, important priorities, but also the most pressing. There is a certain amount of Urgency that you cannot avoid. Those priorities become imperative when the consequences of not doing them exceeds the discomfort of doing them. We're really good at avoiding discomfort - it's one of the biological instincts that is part of the procrastination problem in the first place. So, you can perform the 'Am I screwed test?'. Ask yourself whether or not by not doing it you would be screwed. You might want to say yes the first time, but you may be trying to fool yourself again. Would you really be screwed? Like, really? Like, out on the street or bleeding or other threats to your life & security? Unlikely, but possible. More likely the consequences will be the loss of something that you deeply care about if it is truly Urgent. And if you really care about that, be honest with yourself, you DO NOT want to lose it.
All of the other priorities that are not Urgent to the point of something vitally important in your life being in peril will make up the majority of your list. If they're neither Urgent, nor Important, try to figure out how to get someone else to do them, or if they can be ignored. Doing these is not productive procrastination, it's self-sabotage. You have to stay out of this quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix as much as you can if you want Structured Procrastination to work. There might be a lot of behaviours and activities that are good as rewards and incentives, but there's also a lot of time-wasters that won't keep you moving forward.
The priorities at the top of your list will get done when they either reach the deadline pressure stage (and then you just have to crunch) or when they get replaced by something even bigger and scarier (and thus become the means of procrastinating productively).
The large, compound goals scarily looming at the top of your list sometimes are better to do earlier than later, at which point you can keep the strategy, but alter your approach. First, replace it with a bigger and scarier goal, and then break the previous one into smaller goals.
There is a distinction here that needs to be made between priority list, and a ToDo list. Structured procrastination works with priorities, but not so much with ToDo's because the latter can be reduced to small tasks that either overwhelm you with their number, or fall firmly within the Not Important & Not Urgent quadrant that you must try to avoid. A priority list is your strategic plan; goals that you're trying to accomplish in the medium term. ToDo lists are what you're planning to get done today and need to be reasonable in number and size, or you'll just hate the list-making habit and stop doing them.
Splitting priorities can often turn them into tasks, which can then be reduced _ad infinitum_. Doesn't matter how small it was, you can bisect it again and again until it's something too small to fail. (e.g. a new text document and writing "Chapter 1" would work for my example, and then an outline, or the traditional unpolished before the first edit 'word vomit' that starts out plain awful and becomes something coherent by the end). But on the flipside, some priorities already are tasks (e.g. Go to the Doctor), so be flexible and use discretion. Not letting your structured procrastination list get too specific keeps it from being too long to be useful, or too specific to have any sort of intimidation factor.
Okay, to summarize:
Now, this strategy won't work for everyone, and still requires that you develop more grit and willpower to redirect your attention to important but less scary priorities, but it is still easier than having to buckle down and do only the most important thing all the time (which is uncomfortable and triggers the "run away!" response). People who are able to quit procrastination cold turkey… are about as common as unicorns. Maybe they exist? Maybe they don't? I've never seen one. Developing the habit of turning back to things that are more increasingly more important will help you to build good habits of positively reinforcing that mindfulness and redirection necessary to get over procrastination.
If you've enjoyed this article, for my writing style or the content, I'd appreciate if you gave me a like or a follow. I do one-on-one coaching and excel at helping recovering procrastinators. You can change if you want to, or not, but either way can get more done and be excited about doing it.
Either way, I hope this helped you enjoy doing and not-doing more effectively. Please comment if you've tried it, or already had a system like this in place!
Aaron Ball. Recovered Academic. Grieving Environmentalist. Evidence-Based Transformational Coach. Electronic musician. Transrationalist.