Accomplish more by procrastinating better

We all know we do our best work under pressure. Here’s how to procrastinate your way to getting even more accomplished

Man reading a book called "Zen" as his inbox goes up in flames

(Illustration by Peter Arkle)

When John Perry started writing his essay “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done” in 1996, he didn’t think it would eventually go viral or lead to a satiric Ig Nobel Prize in Literature in 2011. And he definitely didn’t think it would result in a book deal for The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing. After all, the professor (now emeritus) of philosophy at Stanford University was simply avoiding the task at hand: grading his students’ papers. “It turned out to be a worthwhile thing to do. The essay made a lot more impact on my life and the lives of others than an hour or two difference in getting the papers graded would have made,” he says now.

Procrastination gets a bad rap because those of us who fall victim to it are most often checking Facebook or Twitter rather than doing something productive. We are essentially avoiding a task despite expecting to be worse off in the long run. But, in some cases, delaying a dreaded task until the very last minute can actually have a positive effect.

“My basic take on procrastination is that people shouldn’t feel so bad about it,” says Perry. He later renamed his essay “Structured Procrastination,” having realized that people could do useful things while not doing what they’re supposed to. If your strategy for beating procrastination is to tell your staff to stay focused on just one task, prepare for that tactic to backfire. “You should always have a bunch of tasks in mind. So if you’re not in the mood to do the one you really should be doing, you’ve got something else ready,” Perry says.

A similar strategy for tackling the urge to slack is to practice “productive procrastination,” a term used by Piers Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary’s Haskayne School of Business who studies procrastination. In this case, you have two tasks you don’t want to do, but you cast one of them as a more palatable alternative to the one you should be doing, like having to complete two reports but giving a final edit to one of them instead of writing the second. “When it’s time to actually get to the task we have to do, we’re often at a better place, having kind of done everything else,” says Steel. “In fact, one real task can drive a heck of a lot of productivity.”

There’s also something to be said for the shotgun flurry of creativity that can happen in the harried moments before a deadline. Speaking at the 2012 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, actor and comedian John Cleese revealed he’s a strong proponent of completing tasks at the last possible second. While recounting tales of his epic writing sessions with fellow Monty Python collaborator Graham Chapman, Cleese remembered a time he had lost the work he had done on a sketch. Moments before it was due, Cleese quickly rewrote the sketch from memory and found it to be better than the original. “The only thing I could think was that my unconscious had been working on the sketch and improving it ever since I wrote it.” In other words, any time you’re not explicitly thinking about a task, you’re letting your ideas bake.

One way of replicating this pressure is to create artificial deadlines for yourself and your staff. “We sometimes need to pretend there’s no extra time so it gives us the motivation to do it,” explains Steel. Perry’s suggestion is to create a to-do list that ranks tasks from the most urgent to the least important, knowing that will lead procrastinators to perform the items lower on the list first. But because every task has to get completed at some point, the natural procrastinator actually accomplishes more. “There’s a lot of us who don’t have enough willpower and self-discipline—but we can manipulate ourselves,” says Perry.