Some people put off tasks and proudly point to studies showing that procrastination has benefits like increased productivity and creativity.
Not so fast, say time-management experts: There’s a difference between ignoring something that has to be done and purposely delaying a job that will benefit from extra time. People looking to reap the benefits sometimes attributed to procrastination need to understand the difference.
“Procrastination is akin to kicking some stone down the street… stuff we are doing later, but we really want to do now,” explains Chris Bailey, the Ottawa-based author of The Productivity Project.
An example is delaying a straightforward task or something that has to be done in the short term. Putting these off typically adds more stress, Mr. Bailey says.
“It doesn’t make us feel more creative and leads us to feel more guilt and doubt,” he says.
However, delaying something we have budgeted time to complete can be helpful if it requires more thought or creativity, such as writing.
“Purposefully delaying for the future gives our mind more time to process,” Mr. Bailey says, adding that our minds alternate between focus and wandering throughout the day.
Focus enables us to work hard on a task, while wandering allows us to make mental connections or come up with new ideas. More wandering time before completing a creative task gives us more opportunities for our minds to consider different options or solutions.
“If you think to when your best, most brilliant ideas strike you, you’re probably not that focused on stuff – maybe you’re walking, in the shower, or sitting on a patio with coffee,” says Mr. Bailey, citing research that shows we think about our goals 14 times more while in that state.
“We think about the future half of the time that our mind is wandering. We’re planning. We’re thinking about what our projects might look like.”
Grant Connelly, chief executive officer of Mississauga, Ont.-based NeuPath Health, a chain of pain clinics, has witnessed the benefits of purposeful delay among his staff, clients and himself.
Mr. Connelly isn’t talking about putting things off for days, but says delaying some tasks by a few minutes or hours can improve mental capacity if paired with taking a break.
“I think that taking some time away from something... sometimes changes your perspective and can lead to better solutions,” Mr. Connelly says. “Trying to force yourself to do something because you feel like it needs to get done doesn’t necessarily produce the best results.
“Sometimes it’s beneficial to re-energize ourselves, take some time away, go for a walk, meditate and come back to our work with a different perspective.”
Mr. Connelly says a planned delay or break can give people the mental space needed to address reasons they didn’t feel ready to complete the task in the first place.
“If we’re aware [of] what our triggers might be and spend the time to think about why we’re purposefully delaying, we can channel that energy,” he says
Tim Pychyl, who has written several books on procrastination, says research literature defines it as a voluntary delay of an intended task, despite expecting the outcome to be worse off for the delay. The reasons people procrastinate stem from experiencing negative emotions associated with a task, such as resentment, boredom, frustration, anger, anxiety or fear.
Dr. Pychyl says using mindfulness techniques to recognize those feelings can be a step toward overcoming them and reducing procrastination.
“You have to be able to mindfully accept the feelings you’re having and then act without any reference to those feelings,” says Dr. Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa. “I have to say to myself, ‘What’s the next action I would take if I was going to work on this? The key to getting started is to keep that action as small as possible.”
He says many people who put off tasks to the last minute have the mistaken belief that they do their best work under deadline pressure. However, research shows people tend to make more errors under those circumstances.
“Some people say it galvanizes their focus, but what I can see from the research is there’s a very small percentage of people who are emotionally stable enough to pull it off,” Dr. Pychyl says.
He suggests only delaying tasks that would benefit from the pause, “if it’s a rational choice based on practical reason.” Otherwise, he says, “it’s self-defeating. It’s avoidance.”