Intelligent Procrastination

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Intelligent Procrastination
By Justin Wright

Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today.” — Benjamin Franklin

This quote is one we have likely heard often, repeated to us during our childhood and into our teenage years. Sometimes, however, procrastination can actually be beneficial. This does not mean you have carte blanche to push things off and avoid getting tasks done. It does, however, mean that you need to be smart about which tasks receive your full effort each day. One of the fastest ways to guarantee that you don’t accomplish much is to build a task list that is too large. If your attention is pulled in a multitude of directions, focused effort becomes nearly impossible.

This concept is the cornerstone behind Cal Newport’s book Deep Work. Newport suggests that we must find time to work, undistracted, in order to create anything truly meaningful. When it comes to our priority task lists, these are the types of activities that require focused, uninterrupted effort to complete. 

This is easier said than done in the digital age where almost every activity carries with it a notification and an alert. If you don’t find ways to sort through all of this white noise, it can be nearly impossible to get things done in a reasonable amount of time. So where does intelligent procrastination come into play in all of this? It just might be the one strategy that allows you to make substantial progress towards accomplishing your goals.

De-stress: intelligent procrastination

Intelligent procrastination is the act of pushing certain activities to another day or time not out of laziness, but out of a desire to increase productivity. It seems counterintuitive to procrastinate in order to be more productive, but this concept makes sense when you consider the trade-offs. Let’s say you have a number of tasks to complete in a given week. Let’s also assume that many of these may be time-intensive, but not necessarily thought-intensive. There are repetitive tasks in any job that command more time than creativity; it is easy to overfill our plates with these tasks if we aren’t careful. The net result is being busy, but not necessarily making forward progress.

This strategy works best when you feel overwhelmed or when you feel stuck in place. Make a list of everything that you need to get done, no matter how large or how small. Be as complete as possible with this list; don’t worry about the order, as we will reorganize it afterwards. Whether you are preparing for a large presentation or simply need to send an email response to a client, jot everything down. Once your list is complete, we can break it down into categories and figure out where to focus our efforts.

Create categories and order-of-importance

Once the list has been completed, the goal is to organize these items into categories representative of the tasks in question. In order to simplify this process, utilize the following categories:

Repetitive tasks — these are regularly-recurring tasks and actions that are a crucial part of your week. A lot of these will fall under the Green list we have previously defined. These are likely not time-intensive, but are important nonetheless.

Quick/Unimportant tasks — these are tasks which are relatively easy to accomplish, don’t require much time, and likely aren’t of critical importance right now. They need to get done, but they also aren’t time-sensitive.

Quick/Critical tasks — these tasks don’t require much time investment, but are important and time-sensitive. They need to get done quickly, but won’t require a substantial amount of energy to complete.

Long/Unimportant tasks — these are the tasks that often trap us and sap our time and energy. They take a long time to do, but also don’t need to be done right now. Big projects with unclear deadlines fall under this category. If possible, these are the types of tasks you want to delegate to others instead of taking on yourself.

Long/Critical tasks — these are things that require a substantial amount of time and energy, but they are also important enough to be urgent. This category is important, and should be the first place you look when figuring out where to spend your time each week.

After sorting through your larger list of tasks and batching them into the categories above, you will have a much better understanding of both the length and importance of everything you have written down. The goal of this practice is to figure out where to focus efforts and, more importantly, where not to. The next step will be to determine exactly how to move forward with this list of tasks.

Do or delegate

You now have an organized list of upcoming tasks, sorted by both importance and time required for completion. This is powerful because it helps direct your attention and effort effectively. The first thing to do is analyze the last category of long and critical tasks. This is the place where your high-priority list should be created each day. Focusing your efforts first and foremost on these tasks is a way to ensure forward progress is being made on a consistent basis.

The quicker, critical tasks also need to be done, but these shouldn’t be the first place you start working. Many people fall into the trap of filling their schedule with these types of activities. They are attractive because they are important, but they often don’t fit into the bigger picture or help create forward progress. These are the types of things that can, when multiplied, occupy a substantial amount of time without much to show for our efforts. We have all had those days where we do so much and feel like we have accomplished so little.

Use these small tasks as ways to fill time or transition between larger projects. When you hit a roadblock or can no longer make forward progress on a larger task, it can help to chip away at the smaller task list in order to refocus. Sometimes you will need a break from working on larger, important tasks as well; these often require more thought and deeper thinking which can be mentally exhausting. Chipping away at easier tasks that are also important can be a good way to reset the brain and allow for more productivity later on.

Lastly, the two unimportant lists provide a great opportunity to delegate work to others in your team or organization. Many business leaders fall into the trap of doing work that should be assigned to someone else. Even if you aren’t running a business or a larger team, modern technology allows for myriad ways of outsourcing monotonous tasks to others. Hiring an online assistant or looking to websites selling freelance services is a great way to save more time for important tasks. If a task doesn’t need to be done now, especially if it will require a large time investment, this is something you should strongly consider delegating or outsourcing to someone else.

Pick your battles

The whole purpose behind this strategy is to create time for things that matter instead of cluttering your calendar with unimportant activities. Procrastinating is beneficial when it comes to tasks that are unimportant right now or will require a large time investment for little return. Putting these things off can help you hone in on the activities that actually matter. This focused effort allows you to make progress instead of struggling to keep your head above water.

Find ways to spend time and energy focusing on the longer, most-important tasks. Clear your plate of things that you can push off onto other people. More importantly, understand the pitfalls of taking on a large number of smaller tasks, no matter how important they may seem. The only way to make true forward progress is to invest time and energy into meaningful work. As mentioned before, this is a key philosophy in Newport’s Deep Work.

A plague of the modern world is that it is so easy to be distracted. Mundane tasks are thrown at us frequently because of how interconnected we are, and this can make it difficult to sort through what is important now and what can be put off until later. Creating a task list and organizing it into categories will save you from feeling overwhelmed. More importantly, it will save you from wasting time working on the wrong things. Sometimes, putting things off until tomorrow might actually be the best way to ensure that you accomplish things today!


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