Several years ago, Dr. John Perry, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University, wrote a wonderful little book called The Art of Procrastination. The subtitle of this tiny 92-page book is “A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing*” (*“or getting things done by putting them off”).
Before reading this book, I had a primarily negative connotation of procrastination. But once I realized that I, myself, am what Perry calls a “structured procrastinator,” I felt better about myself. A structured procrastinator is a person who gets a lot done by not doing other things. In the research literature, there are other terms (such as “productive procrastination” and “positive procrastination”) that refer to procrastinating on important “To Do” tasks.
Thanks to Dr. Perry, I’ve come to the conclusion that procrastination can be absolutely positive! It’s such a relief to know that when I’m being “structured” about getting stuff done, I can tell myself that I am getting a lot of stuff done by not doing other things.
Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment. Robert Benchley
How Can Procrastination Be Positive?
According to Dr. Perry, most procrastinators are actually doers. They get stuff done! And, once structured procrastinators realize how much they get done by putting off other more important tasks, a number of positive things happen:
- They feel less guilt and shame.
- Their self-esteem increases.
- They prioritize their tasks better.
- They get even more done!
- Getting things done motivates them to do even more.
- They make procrastination work for them.
When Does Procrastination Backfire?
OK, we’ve learned that structured procrastination has some positive outcomes. But procrastination, even structured procrastination, can – and often does – backfire.
For the college students with ADHD whom I coach, serious problems with procrastination usually result in poor outcomes:
- Poorly written papers and overdue assignments
- Less sleep and a pervasive sense of anxiety
- Lower grades and feeling like a failure
- Being placed on academic warning or probation
- Lower self-confidence and self-esteem
Unfortunately, many procrastinators think that by committing to doing less, they will quit procrastinating and do the very few things on their checklist. But it doesn’t work that way.
By making less commitments, fewer things on a procrastinator’s list become the most important things to do. And then procrastinators do nothing! Or they spend an excessive number of hours just hanging out with friends or sleeping late – or perhaps watching TV or playing video games. These are what Stephen R. Covey calls “Quadrant IV” activities. By definition, Quadrant IV activities are neither urgent nor important.
People who spend a lot of time in Quadrant IV are not effective procrastinators. But a structured procrastinator can become quite effective – with practice!
Perfectionism and Self-Deception
It’s important for structured procrastinators to get to know themselves very well. Structured procrastinators are usually not the best judges of how long it takes to get things done.That’s because they share some common personality traits and behaviors that can easily derail them:
- Perfectionism – Structured procrastinators are often perfectionists, but don’t realize it. They’re not serious perfectionists! They don’t necessarily do things perfectly or even attempt to do things perfectly. But they have fantasies about doing things perfectly. That’s one reason they take on too many tasks. They also procrastinate on the most important tasks because they have fantasies about doing them perfectly. Dr. Perry calls this “the garden variety” of perfectionism.
- Self-Deception – Structured procrastinators usually think they can get more done than they can actually get done. In other words, they are masters at deceiving themselves! They are constantly telling themselves that all of these other tasks need to get done before they tackle the one, huge (or dreaded), really important task. Part of the reason structured procrastinators think this way is because of their “garden variety of perfectionism” way of thinking. That’s why they need structure in their day – to bring them out of fantasy thinking and into concrete, realistic thinking.
Becoming an Effective Procrastinator
To put procrastination into proper perspective, ALL of us procrastinate to some extent. It’s human nature.
All of us have to put some things off to get other things done. But if we are effective procrastinators, we have to get better at putting first things first. Habit 3 in Stephen R. Covey’s highly-acclaimed time management and leadership book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, is “Put First Things First.” If you haven’t yet read that classic text, please listen to it or read it. Bonus: It will help you procrastinate on getting other things done – while learning how to put first things first!!
The key to being an effective procrastinator is structuring “first things first” activities so that they don’t get put off too long. Developing a daily structure is especially important for college students and others with ADHD because they usually struggle more than others do with organization, prioritizing, scheduling, and other aspects of executive functioning.
Developing the Daily Habit of Focus
Now, this is the tricky part. And I’m not saying it’s easy!! Let’s face it. Procrastination is a habit. And habits – especially long-term habits – are usually hard to change – or manage. However, developing the habit of focus can help you manage procrastination.
Your life will be so much easier once you’ve developed this ritual:
- Beginning of Each Day:
- Before you get started with your day, pull up your calendar to refresh yourself on what you want to get done that day. Make adjustments, if needed.
- Think about how good you are going to feel when something that you have been putting off – or might put off – gets done!
- During the Day:
- Check your calendar frequently throughout the day. Make adjustments, if needed, to track how you spend your time.
- When a default calendar reminder alarm sounds or vibrates, take a deep breath and clear your head. Ask yourself if you spent the last hour doing what you intended to do. Make adjustments on your calendar for the rest of the day, as needed.
- Stop and reward yourself for getting started on – or maybe even finishing – anything you have been putting off. Stop, breathe, and think, “I can do this.” Phone or text your significant other, your Mom, or your best friend about what you got done.
- Brag on yourself a little. Make it real that you got an important task done – something that you are supposed to get done!!
- End of Each Day:
- Pull up your calendar and look at the next day’s schedule. Review what’s already on the next day’s schedule.
- Stop, breathe, and reflect upon the most important thing(s) that you absolutely have to get done the next day in order to feel good about yourself. Estimate how long it will take you to do those one, two, or three things.
- Enter an estimated time to at least start on one or more of those all-important tasks, even if you only have 30 minutes to get started. It’s usually easier to go back to a task that’s already started than to get started on a brand new task.
- Make sure that alarms are set on your phone or computer to remind you when it’s time to move on to another task.
Getting Help With Procrastination
Are you a procrastinator? If so, I hope you will take an hour or two to read The Art of Procrastination. If you’re a structured procrastinator, I think you will end up feeling better about yourself after reading this humorous, refreshing book – even if you have ADHD!! You’ll learn how to trick yourself into doing a high priority task by putting a task like “Learn Chinese” at the top of your task list. That way, you’ll face fewer consequences for avoiding the item at the top of the list!
At LaMountain & Associates, we customize our coaching and coaching support services to help clients develop effective structure and to meet their goals. Please contact us for a free consultation to talk about coaching services for yourself or your young adult child.
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