Have you ever felt overwhelmed about a particularly difficult task ahead of you? It needs to get done ASAP, but you’re stuck.
- Maybe you recently took the leap and started your own business, but you’re struggling to feel like you’ve really nailed your niche. You keep changing your mind — it needs to be perfectly aligned with who you are, but you still feel it’s off.
- Or maybe you’re a software developer and you have a looming deadline for work, but you’re stuck on the solution (me right now!)
- Maybe you’re a writer who has a serious case of writer’s block. Everything you write, you delete. You’ve been at it for weeks yet still feel you’re at square one.
- You could be in an early stage of creating your blog, and doubting whether or not the effort you’re putting into creating content is worth the time investment. You go back to square one to re-imagine the direction for your blog, but you just don’t know what to do.
Whatever it may be, the longer it stays on the list, the more your anxiety builds (whether you realize it or not).
The more anxiety grows, the less you’re able to focus on your task and see real progress.
As a result, you procrastinate.
We don’t tend to think of the word procrastinate in a positive context. But if you look at the definition itself, it doesn’t necessarily have to be negative.
the action of delaying or postponing something
Delaying or Postponing — this doesn’t need to mean that you have to waste time in the process. In fact, procrastination can actually be the most productive use of your time if you’re experiencing mental blocks. I like to think of this as Productive Procrastination.
What is Productive Procrastination?
Productive Procrastination means tackling other tasks on your to-do list, while you’re currently stuck on a particularly big, or important task. Rather than procrastinating by being lazy, i.e. sitting through the work day, waiting for the clock to strike 5 PM, binge watching TV, or mindlessly scrolling on your phone, you complete what you can and return back to the task at hand later.
Some people might define Productive Procrastination as simply making or keeping yourself busy while procrastinating your most essential tasks. The end result, is that maybe you haven’t been lazy, but you still aren’t anywhere closer to accomplishing your goals. Whether it’s starting your own business, growing your business, studying for the GRE, writing a book, or whatever it may be, you could end up 1 year later in the exact same place as you are now.
The keyword in that interpretation for me, however, is COULD.
Productive Procrastination doesn’t mean you keep yourself busy for the sake of being busy.
It also doesn’t mean you completely push any thought whatsoever related to the task you’re struggling with out of your head.
Below are 3 keys to using procrastination in your favor.
1. Make sure your procrastination activity is still closely aligned with your end goal
There are always related tasks that can still help you advance toward your goal when you feel stuck.
They’re not a poor use of time. It shouldn’t be all or nothing between big tasks or busy work. In fact, not only can taking a step back from the big scary task give you a much needed break, if you approach it intelligently, procrastination is exactly the perspective you need to come back to your mental block with answers.
To take our earlier examples:
The new business owner who is struggling to feel like her chosen niche is perfectly aligned with who she is.
Take a step back from forcing an answer that isn’t coming easily through brainstorming sessions or whatever it may be.
Shift gears to a related, less daunting, but still very beneficial activity. On Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter, wherever it may be, find a business owner you admire. Read through their content, visit their website, hear how they market themselves, how they talk about their niche. Maybe they even discuss what allowed them to finally nail it.
Find (and potentially connect) with other business owners or engaged followers in their circle. You can do this by seeing who commented on their post (or by picking out some accounts from their list of followers) in the case of Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook. Read through comments left on a viral blog post discovered via Pinterest.
You get the idea.
You’re using social media more intentionally so it’s not a waste of time. Think of it as more casual research that doesn’t feel like “work.”
The software developer with a looming work deadline who is stuck on a particular problem.
You know the deadline is coming up, so if you’re clearly stuck, take a break and focus on all the other smaller tasks you have to complete before the deadline. I.e., you have multiple stories assigned to you this sprint. If you keep stubbornly trying to work on a story–assuming your co-workers aren’t free to help you–that you’re clearly not making headway on, refusing to focus on other work in the process, what you end up with is your entire workload left to complete in a single night before the deadline.
Plus, by transitioning to smaller tasks, you’ll build some confidence from being able to cross things off your list.
The writer with a serious case of writer’s block. After weeks, he’s still at square one.
How does a writer become good at writing?
By reading, of course.
By exploring the work of other creatives and rediscovering inspiration (AKA, a related procrastination activity).
Don’t let a pressing deadline–self imposed or otherwise–make you feel like the only actions that you should be taking are those that including writing more pages and completing your draft (your end goal).
If you’re stuck, forcing yourself to sit behind a computer and do more of the same is not helping you whatsoever. It’s wasting more time than anything else.
The new blog creator, and doubting whether or not the effort she’s putting into creating content is worth the time investment. She can’t decide what direction to go.
As a new blog creator, you have many focuses aside from what type of content you’re writing for your blog.
Spend some time to assess your website design and find areas for improvement there.
Work on your brand — colors, logo, tone (even if you don’t know for sure what content you’ll share, you likely know a general message you want people to get from you).
Focus on creating content for social media, such as Instagram. In the process, it could spark a potential blog post idea, which can help guide you towards an overall direction for your blog content.
Learn about how you’ll leverage SEO and Pinterest strategies. In doing so, you’ll likely stumble across articles from successful bloggers (who are teaching you about SEO or Pinterest) that might inspire a new idea in you.
There’s always some related activity that can bring you ideas whether or not you’re explicitly searching for them.
2. Don’t push discomfort and uncertainty too far out of your mind
Sure, sometimes it’s helpful to completely switch your brain over to something entirely different such as cleaning your house, watching a murder mystery show, or listening to your best friend’s problems.It’s totally okay to do this (and we’re getting to helpful examples of this in #3).
But keep in mind that we humans are very capable of burying and forgetting about uncomfortable topics that are causing us stress. It’s easier, and it feels safe. It allows us to feel in control again.
But what’s helped me get through mental blocks in the past?
Procrastination activities– both related and unrelated to my goal–in which no matter what I do, I keep the uncertainty not too far in the back of my mind.
The result? My brain continues to “solution” my problem. It does so by trying to make a connection between whatever I’m currently doing or reading and my problem at hand.
Poof! Like magic, I think of new ideas that appear to come out of nowhere (which is why I am always prepared to write them down as a note on my phone or jotted on a napkin!).
But really, they’re not random.
They’re not magic! (Sad, right?)
Similar to how scientific research shows its best to get a full night’s sleep before a big exam, because it allows your brain to absorb the material you’ve spent time reviewing.
Ideas that have pushed me past my mental block come because time and productive distractions were what I needed to allow my brain to develop new connections and ideas BASED off the effort I’ve already put in. And often, these are new and exciting breakthrough ideas that help solve my block.
3. Do something you genuinely enjoy, completely unrelated to the problem at hand
Keep tip #2 in mind, and don’t push your task so far out of mind that when you return back to it you’re starting at square one.
But anyone who tells you you have to be 110% focused on your professional or career goals at ALL times really doesn’t get life.
Doing something you love that is not related to your goal is NOT being busy for the sake of being busy. It’s relaxing, it’s a release, and it can help center you and provide you clarity. It’s living your life.
It keeps you from getting burnt out.
Again, it works with tip #2 to allow your brain to form connections based on all the hard work you’ve already done.
So go on a hike. Paint something. Spend some quality time with loved ones.
If you’re having a lazy day and you need it, take it. You’re not straying too far away from your goals, and taking a step back might just be the type of productive procrastination you need. It doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten your goals. It doesn’t mean one year from now you’ll be in the exact same place.
Don’t be the person who takes a mental block as an excuse to be lazy.
Don’t be the person who blames their problems on the fact that Productive Procrastination is not a good use of time, either.
Use procrastination in your favor.
Sit with the uncertainty of not knowing what your next move is. Keep that feeling and all thoughts related to it in the back of your head, but in the meantime, spend time on other related (or unrelated) activities to push yourself towards your goal.
You might find that Productive Procrastination is exactly what you need to propel yourself forward.