Pseudo-productive procrastination

I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of procrastination, creative and dogged in my approach to not getting things done.
Susan Orlean
1955 –

Many people today engage in what I call “pseudo-productive procrastination” — usually without even realizing it. While this behavior might convey some short-term benefits, it can ultimately damage productivity and severely hinder you from reaching your long-term goals.

What is pseudo-productive procrastination? Quite simply, it’s performing low-value or unnecessary tasks in order to delay working on a more valuable project. It manifests in many ways: checking email every few minutes; doing more research than necessary; over-organizing electronic files or physical paperwork; searching for the “perfect” image for a presentation or newsletter. These tasks all seem like work, so it’s easy to convince ourselves that doing them means we’re being productive. But the truth is, overdoing a necessary task is never a good use of your time, and neither is doing something that isn’t going to yield you any real benefit; you might as well be browsing Facebook, because you aren’t making any real progress towards accomplishing your goals.

Let’s take email as an example, since frequently checking email is probably the most common way of avoiding more important work. It’s a widespread myth that checking email every few minutes is important or necessary. In reality, it’s not likely that anything in your mailbox is so urgent it can’t wait for an hour or more; if a message were that time-sensitive, the person would pick up the phone instead. Moreover, cognitive studies at the University of California-Irvine and King’s College London University have demonstrated that interrupting your work flow to check email is highly disruptive. Each time you divert your attention away from a job, even if it’s just for a minute or two, your brain has to reorient itself to the original task, costing you valuable time and effort. You’ll make much better progress if you work uninterrupted for 45-60 minutes and then check email; don’t break your concentration and waste mental energy over something that can wait until you truly need a break.

Another problem with pseudo-productive procrastination is that it often eats up the hours when your brain power is at its peak. Dan Ariely, a Duke University professor of psychology and behavioral economics, states that for most people, our most productive time each day is in the first two hours after we become fully awake. But when we engage in pseudo-productive procrastination — checking and answering emails, reading the day’s headlines, organizing our files or tidying the office — we squander that valuable window of productivity on low-value tasks. We’ll get a lot more done if we focus on our most important tasks during those peak hours and save the less challenging work for the afternoon slump or the end of the day.

Now that you’re aware of this issue, how do you combat it? Obviously, we develop these tendencies for a reason, so it’s unlikely that recognizing the problem will be enough to solve it.

First, accept that your current practices have most likely become habits, and habits take time to alter. You can’t expect to reform overnight — but you can make small changes each day to break away from your bad habits and form new, healthier ones.

So start small. When you catch yourself engaging in pseudo-productive procrastination, set a firm time limit to move on to more productive work — and honor it. If necessary, promise yourself that you only have to spend five minutes on your main project before you can switch to something else. Getting started is the most critical step in beating procrastination; once you overcome your resistance and start working, it’s generally not so hard to keep going.

Many people struggle with procrastination because they find themselves overwhelmed by the enormity of a task or project. So one of the most effective ways to make that crucial first step is to break each project down into small, manageable steps. (I suggest you do this planning at the end of the day so you’re prepared the next morning when your energy, mental acuity and willpower are at their peak.) Breaking a project down into small tasks helps you put the work into perspective and makes it much easier to handle. What’s more, as you cross off each small task, you’ll quickly gain a sense of accomplishment that will help you keep going.

The next time you catch yourself engaging in pseudo-productive procrastination, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just nudge yourself back onto a more productive path. You’ll find it gets easier each time, and before long, you’ll be feeling better mentally and making more progress towards your goals. You’ve only got so much time; you might as well make the most of it.

You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
1929 – 1968

Copyright © 2015 John Chancellor and Cheryl Chancellor


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