The art of Putting Things Off is a skillset most of us wish we didn’t have; I’ve been to the toilet three times since starting researching procrastination and just before writing this introduction, I emailed my colleague a picture of a fat wizard. Irony. Good to learn, then, that work-avoidance isn’t all bad, and it can actually help you work more efficiently… 

Why we procrastinate: the science bit. 

Of course there are hundreds of potential reasons as to why, according to a recent study, procrastinating has got worse in recent years. More distractions like Twitter, email, Facebook and a culture allowing for more lee-way when it comes to excusing our way out of deadlines (from “the site crashed so couldn’t submit the application” to “my domestic robot ate my external hard drive which contains my CV”, technology has really helped us out here) haven’t helped, but it seems our brains could actually be hardwired to procrastinate. 

Our little work-avoiding brains have a limbic system that automatically steers us from bad behaviour; it tells us not to put our heads in ovens while helping us avoid situations that get us stressed and frightened. We’ll come to this later, but fear is one of the main triggers for procrastinating, so it’s not surprising that our little limbic systems immediately kick in the moment we sit down to scare ourselves. Suddenly the CD collection is alphabetised and the job hasn’t been finished. 

Why we procrastinate: the mind bit

Retired social psychologist Dr Lesley Prince believes it’s a mixture of fear and the reduction of options. “Once you commit to something, your choices are reduced,” he explains, “what if you do it wrong? That sort of thing. Procrastinating keeps those options open.” It’s being scared to fail so you don’t want to try, a concept made worse by being surrounded by the sort of people who are so organised, they’ve completed an assignment before they’ve even been given it. But there’s good news..

Why procrastinating might be good for you 

So you’re afraid and your brain is working extra hard to make you as distracted as possible, but some do work better when faced with a looming cut-off point. “There’s a clarity that comes before a deadline where the extraneous stuff disappears and you focus better on the job at hand,” says Dr Prince, “you go straight to where you need to be. I’m a practiced procrastinator, but I never miss deadlines because the adrenalin kicks in when you need it to.” 

It’s all about accepting your fate. A seasoned procrastinator knows they are a procrastinator, and so will allow themselves that all-nighter, or that last minute cram. “There’s no point fighting it,” warns Dr Prince, “because those who worry themselves sick over the fact they’ve left it to the last minute will end up more likely to do a bad job. Stop lying to yourself and admit you’re going to do it the night/day/week before.” 

if you give yourself space to procrastinate, not only will your stress levels subside but you’ll be a much more effective worker. 

How to procrastinate effectively 

Your brain never stops thinking, but processes ideas in different ways. Think of it like a computer with programmes running in the background. “Displacement activities such as washing the dishes, alphabetising books and other housework tasks give you time to actively mull things over,” Dr Prince says, “but sleeping on it and doing something totally different has a lot more value than you’d think.” 

A German study found that concentrating on a different task actually improves your overall focus, meaning you’ll get the job in hand in hand done quicker. 

On the other hand, displacement activities that don’t involve a lot of focus, like housework or watching the Kardashians, also gives your brain time to mull it over. When you go back , you may find you’re able to think more clearly. 

To summarise

1. Accept you’re a procrastinator and don’t beat yourself up over it. 

2. Don’t stress about the displacement activities – they’re helping your brain work it out 

3. Try doing a completely different task, one that requires some focus, to get your mind warmed up subconsciously and your overall focus sharper.

4. Then try a displacement activity that requires little engagement to give yourself some space to think. When you go to work, you’ll be clearer and more focussed.

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