How many times have you started an important task, only to find yourself mindlessly scrolling through Instagram 20 minutes later ― and then chastising yourself for getting distracted?
Because of common (read: inevitable) instances like this, most people have negative, guilt-inducing associations around the concept of procrastination. But Dr. Josh Klapow, a clinical psychologist and co-host of the radio show “The Web,” says procrastination itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s how you approach it that determines whether it becomes a burden or a tool.
Procrastination is defined simply as “the act of delaying or postponing something,” Klapow said. But “most of us see it as a sign of fear, laziness, or otherwise avoidance behavior.”
This, however, isn’t always the case. Klapow said the key to using procrastination to your advantage is to take an active approach instead of a passive one.
“Never allow yourself to say, ‘I’m going to get to it.’ That is setting yourself up for failure,” he said.
Instead, use a method he calls “planned procrastination,” where you ask yourself why you need to delay taking action on something — maybe you’re too overwhelmed, too sleep-deprived to focus, or don’t yet have the right resources — and then postpone your task for a specific day and time. The difference here is intention. You’re consciously deciding how to spend your time, rather than letting procrastination be something that happens to you.
Next time you find yourself on the verge of procrastinating — by logging on to social media, perhaps, or leaning over your desk to chat with a co-worker — stop and ask yourself Klapow’s questions:
1. Is this task something I truly don’t have time for?
2. Is it something I have time for but don’t want to do?
3. Is it something I’m afraid to do?
4. Or something I don’t know how to do?
“If you plan your procrastination with an honest understanding of why you are delaying [your task] and a realistic, exact day and time allocation [for completing it], then you can simply enjoy the time off you give yourself in the delay,” Klapow said.
And though there are infinite ways to spend your time, you probably don’t want to squander a deliberate procrastination session by playing games on your phone or scrolling through Twitter ― at least not when you could engage in an activity that helps recharge your batteries and refocus your energy.
Follow these smart procrastination strategies to help set yourself up for productivity when you’re ready to get down to business:
Get out of your head and get moving
If you feel too tired or stressed to tackle your project, take a brisk walk outside, check out the local yoga class you’ve been wanting to try, or jog around your neighborhood.
It may seem counterintuitive to work out if you feel sluggish or anxious, but research shows that exercise is not only a powerful combatant against stress, it also has energizing effects ― meaning your sweat session can leave you feeling simultaneously calmer and more invigorated.
Declutter a problem area in your space.
If Marie Kondo has taught the world anything, it’s that tidying up your home is the key to joy, serenity, and success. Why? Because, as Klapow notes, clutter can cause distraction and stress, especially if the amount of stuff in your space makes it inconvenient or frustrating to accomplish mundane tasks like getting dressed or cooking dinner.
If you follow the KonMari method as a means of procrastination, though, you’ll be decluttering until your entire house is in perfect order — books alphabetized and socks neatly folded atop one another — which will likely take too much time. “The act of decluttering can be overwhelming depending on the size of the job, [and] thinking about how much work there is to do creates more stress,” Klapow said.
So think smaller. Pinpoint a visibly cluttered but contained space in your home, like your desktop, kitchen counter, or bathroom sink area, then determine a set amount of time you’ll spend tidying it up. Klapow explained that setting these specific parameters around a project helps you solve the problem without getting sidetracked.
Meditate or write in a journal.
Instead of pushing through a difficult task when you feel scattered or overwhelmed, pause and turn inward. A study in the American Journal of Hypertension found that regular transcendental meditation practices helped young adults lower their blood pressure, reduce stress, and improve their coping skills. Try meditating for two, five, or 10 minutes — whatever you feel comfortable with. As you breathe, observe the thoughts that come up, and practice acknowledging them without judgment or attachment.
If you’re not the meditation type, try free-writing in a journal — jot down dreams, brilliant ideas, worries, or things you’re grateful for. The simple act of paying attention to your thoughts can help you eliminate mental clutter and feel more relaxed.
Do something creative.
If you’ve consciously postponed the thing you need to get done, use your procrastination time to explore your creativity.
“Start very small and be very generous in your definition of creativity,” Klapow advised. “Maybe it’s arranging some flowers from your garden, maybe it’s doodling on a notepad, or maybe it’s writing a few sentences down.”
Research shows that creative expression through music, writing, visual arts, dance, and the like can help lower stress levels and promote relaxation. Pick your favorite activity, whether it’s cooking, crafting, dancing, or playing guitar, and give yourself the freedom to enjoy it without restriction, judgment, or self-imposed pressure.
Next time you feel the urge to put off a task, try this method out. Chances are you’ll walk away with renewed energy and inspiration.