Have you ever felt that you were losing a battle against yourself? You wake up each morning in the first flush of positivity, hopeful that today is going to be the very epitome of productivity. You hope to fly through the do list with the greatest of ease, ticking off tasks with a sense of flow that would shame Niagara Falls. You promise get to the gym, make your own (healthy) lunch, go for a romantic evening walk with your partner, call your mum, write a chapter of your novel before falling into bed satisfied with your efforts.
But then, somewhere between dragging your sorry carcass out from under the covers and mainlining coffee into your system, the instant gratification monkey comes to visit*. You begin to weigh up all the things you could be doing (e.g. eating ice-cream in your pyjamas whilst watching YouTube reviews on last night’s Game of Thrones) against the things you should be doing (e.g. going to the gym and writing that book chapter) – and guess which side is going to win?
I’m what you might call an epic procrastinator. If I were a superhero I’d be “Procrastor” able to put off saving the world for ages and somehow managing to get the job done at the last possible minute. I always have the best of intentions but frequently find myself spending hours reading the comments section of the guardian’s latest editorial on Brexit whilst my to do list goes untouched. It’s not that I don’t know I have work to do nor that I underestimate the length of time it will take, it’s just that it’s so effing hard to get started isn’t it?
Yet, I do get things done. I got a PhD, hold down a day job, am three quarters of the way through the first draft of the novel and I write and manage this blog. But in today’s productivity obsessed world, I can never shake the nagging feeling that I could be doing…well, more. If I could only get straight down to work in the mornings rather than wasting time finding out what Sherlock character I am on Buzzfeed**, I’d have written a best selling book series before lunch!
We all do it and, now more than ever, our lives seem to have become engulfed by the ultimate war against the tyranny of “putting off what you could do today, until tomorrow.” If you google “procrastination” you’ll find some serious bandwidth is devoted to telling us how to stop doing it. Thanks to, twenty-four hour news, smartphones and lifehacker we have never been more obsessed with productivity. One can’t open one’s browser these days without being offered five great ideas on how to tweak one’s morning routine in order to squeeze out a little more value. Emails, as the saying goes, is thine enemy.
But here’s the thing. I believe procrastination gets a bad rap. I’m not alone in this. The philosopher and writer Alain de Botton says that
“We begin to work only when the fear of doing nothing at all exceeds the fear of not doing it very well … And that can take time”
De Botton appears to be telling us that procrastination can, of itself, be a part of work and that we should be more forgiving of ourselves as we wait for sufficient anxiety to set in and we begin the task at hand.
The academic John Perry won the Ig Nobel prize for literature with his take on procrastination. Perry realised that he was capable of doing almost anything so long as it was not the number one priority on his to do list on any given day. For example, if the most important thing in my day is to write a chapter of my novel, I’m likely to spend the day writing a blog post or organising my bookshelf instead. What Perry understood is that procrastination is rarely about “doing nothing”. In fact procrastinators are often very busy indeed. It’s just that they’re likely to be engaged in activities that are less important than the things that they believe they ‘should’ be doing.
Beyond this, TS Elliot wrote:
“Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.”
Defenders of procrastination have long held the belief that, rather than being the thing that stifles productivity, “putting things off till later” has it’s uses and maybe a necessary part of the creative process. It could well be that we need to hit peak guilt before we can deliver the goods. Or it could be that our first ideas are the most conventional but taking time for our subconscious mind to work out the alternatives leads to more creative outcomes.
In fact, researchers from the University of Wisconsin argue that they have found some evidence for this. In a study, a group of people were asked to come up with business ideas. Assigned randomly, some were told to get to work right away while others were given five minutes to play Minesweeper or Solitaire first. The procrastinators were 28% more creative than those who got straight down to work.
With this in mind, I want to re-dress the balance and spend some time in praise of procrastination. Rather than trying to add to the numerous articles promising to banish the instant gratification monkey from your life, this marks the first in a series of blog posts where I will offer my advice on how to procrastinate. I will guide you through some of my favourite procrastination exercises and explore how to do it well.
First up is a classic strategy for the person with an impending deadline – Cleaning.
* For a brilliant take on what it means to procrastinate see Tim Urban’s TED talk on the subject.
** Molly Hooper, if you’re curious.