Have you ever felt guilty for delaying on a project? Maybe it’s putting together a slide deck for that presentation you need to make. Maybe it’s making phone calls to new clients. Maybe, to the millions of students out there, perhaps it’s waiting until 2am to start that paper that’s due tomorrow.
Well, if you’ve ever felt guilty, today we’re going to turn procrastination on its head. Today I’m going to show you why procrastinating will make you more productive and more successful – given that you use it to your advantage.
In our constantly moving culture, we villainize delay. Anyone who delays in any task is:
- Not “up to par”
But this begets the question: why do we procrastinate? The answer lies in biology.
Biologically, there are two main “nervous systems” in your body that dictate your mood and actions.
- Sympathetic Nervous System. Your sympathetic nervous system is responsible for your “flight or fight” response. It gets you amped up, pumps you full of adrenaline and cortisol, and makes you ready to face danger at a moment’s notice
- Parasympathetic Nervous System. Your parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for relaxation. It calms you down after a fight-or-flight response and brings you back to a state of normalcy with large releases of serotonin.
Why is this important? Well, biologically, our bodies try to avoid using energy as much as possible. Why? Because if you’re expending all of your energy jogging and doing yard work, how will you have enough left over to run away from a bear (or so your body asks)?
At the end of the day, that’s how we are designed. In fact, that’s how all animals are designed. We conserve our energy until dangerous situations, then either run or fight in a high-pressure state, and then return to a state of relaxation and grazing again.
Do you see a lion hunting at all hours of the day and night? Absolutely not. They spend a lot of their time relaxing by a lake, playing, and sleeping. Then when they need to hunt or defend themselves, they go into an intense – temporary – predator mode.
So if we want to do good work, we have to understand this essential nature of ourselves.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” – Abraham Lincoln
1. Procrastinate well
“When doing powerful work, the work is least important of our success.”
So how do you “procrastinate well?”
Well, if you’re reading this blog, you’ve probably heard of the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by the late Steven Covey. Do you remember what Habit 7 is? That’s right: Sharpen the Saw.
One of my old high school teachers used to say: “Sometimes, just think about the project or paper you’re working on. Some people don’t think that that’s work. But in my opinion, that’s the hardest work you can possibly do.”
The whole idea of sharpening the saw is making sure that you’re mentally and physically prepared to do a burst of powerful work. This can take many forms:
- Eating Nutritiously
- Brainstorming/Story boarding
- Going for a walk
- Eating a meal with a loved one
- Setting up materials
“Procrastination is your body telling you that you need to back off a bit and think more about what you are doing.” – James Altucher
2. No time constraints? No results
Have you ever given yourself all-day to do a task? You probably thought: “Wow, look at all of this time I have.” And then at the end of the day, you probably thought: “Where did this day go?”
Why? You didn’t give yourself any structure. Time constraints actually allow us to get things done. When we see an impending deadline, we know that we have no choice but to deliver. But if there is no deadline, we’ll just find excuses to check Facebook, watch House of Cards, and waste time. Time wasting is poor procrastination.
Sharpening the saw allows you to do all of the preparation around your work, so that the work won’t take you very long.
Let’s look at to hypothetical scenarios in which you had 3 hours of work to do after a full shift of your job. Which of these would be more effective:
- Working late at 7pm after a 10-hour day, telling yourself you’ll just “push through it,” while you feel exhausted, hungry and burnt out.
- Going home at 7pm, eating a healthy meal, listening to your favorite podcast, calling an old friend, and then getting up 2 hours earlier than normal in the morning, refreshed and alert, to address the extra work.
I think the answer is pretty clear. So why don’t we do this more often?
The answer? GUILT.
Don’t feel guilty for sharpening the saw
I used to feel extremely guilty for taking time to storyboard out a project, or walk away from my computer to take a restorative nap.
Once I let go of this negative self-talk, I realized just how powerful this method is. I think there’s a reason why Dr. Covey left this habit for last: it’s the hardest one to internalize, but it’s also the most important factor for your success.
3. How do you do great work when it’s time?
So how do you do your great work when it’s time? Here’s how:
- Know Your Rhythm. Some people can’t do their best work at traditional hours. I myself am a night owl so I know I’m most productive after midnight. Don’t try to hide it or conform to other people’s standards. Own your rhythm
- Find the Best Environment. Whatever this means for you, you have to find the best environment to be your most focused self. Maybe it’s your desk, your conference room, or a library. Maybe it could be a coffee shop or your home office. Find what is best for you.
- Give Yourself Less Time. Think a task will take 1 hour? Give yourself 45 minutes. The added pressure will force you to focus and work at maximum efficiency. We can always work far more efficiently than we believe.
- Add Risk & Reward. Maybe you’ll have a nice dinner with your spouse if you get your work done, or maybe you’ll have to pay your friend $100 if you don’t complete your project by your decided deadline. Whatever the system, adding accountability will allow you to be effective and properly invested while you work.
As human beings, we spend too much time trying to fight our biology. But we can’t fight our natural tendencies. So why not use them to our advantage instead?