Procrastinate Productively

[This post is 916 words - about 4 minutes for an average reader]

Writers are well known for their procrastination. Many call it “block”, and while the traditional definition is probably accurate in some cases, I’d venture it’s usually just that there’s other stuff to do.

It’s taken me a while, and a few readings of Getting Things Done, to get my life’s priorities sorted. But now that I have, I feel I can give a good definition/explanation of Productive Procrastination. It’s simple, really, but it does take some time and self-awareness.

Productive Procrastination is when you put off doing a task by doing another productive task. See, like I said, easy enough. There are 2 keys to being able to pull it off though, which are harder than just coming up with and understanding the definition.

1. Know Your Priorities

This is actually the easier of the two. It does take a bit of self-examination (and perhaps some David Allen style list-making), but once you’ve figured out what your priorities are (besides writing, of course), then you can move on to the more difficult Step 2.

Here’s an example: Say I’m really worn out from a tough day at the office, and while I know I should write, I just don’t have the brain power left to handle it. I could easily flop down on the couch and watch some Olympics (at this time of year), or whatever other show happens to be on (I don’t have cable and there’s still almost always something on that can entertain to some extent). I could head over to my Google Reader and check out what my friends are blogging about, and what other news of the day I might have missed. I could go on YouTube and see if the people I follow have posted any new videos. I could go on Twitter and try to come up with witty replies to other people’s witty tweets. I could put on an audiobook (always one ready on my iPhone) and wash the floors.

How do I know which one of these is the one I should do? Well, after much meditation and soul-searching (yes, actual, literal meditation and soul-searching), I know that along with work and writing, making my wife happy is one of my high priority goals. It may sound cheesy or even smarmy, but if, after all, I didn’t want to make my wife happy, I wouldn’t have married her. So, anyway, looking at what I can do in this situation, I can easily say that cleaning the floors is my top priority. (It’s one of the things that makes my wife the most happy of just about anything I can do) It does take some energy that I might not have (and that is something that David Allen {author of Getting Things Done – in case you missed that part} says is just as important a part of prioritization as how urgent something is). But, I can also listen to an audiobook while I do it, so it gets extra points added there because that’s almost like reading. Sure, it doesn’t allow you to analyze sentence, paragraph, and chapter structure like reading a hard copy (or digital copy) does, but that also means it takes less brain power, and of course, it can be done while cleaning the floors… So, it’s a decent alternative.

My next priorities in this case would be: Replying to tweets, and checking blogs (so I can leave comments). Both of these help build relationships, either with friends, or with other writers and potential readers. Both of those are important because: a) studies have shown that people with more close friendships are more satisfied with their lives (regardless of any other factors), and b) I need to work on building my “writing” network… currently it consists of about one person.

So, now that we have our priorities straight and can easily figure out what we should be doing when we’ve got some extra time, we have a challenge.

2. Be Aware When You Are Procrastinating Unproductively

Just like any bad habit (for example, I bite my nails almost constantly), it’s often hard to notice when you’re doing it. In the case above, I might just turn on the TV for background noise, and not even notice that I’ve gotten sucked in until a show is rolling the final credits. I could watch one video on YouTube and then see 5 more in the sidebar that look like they’d be really cool. (Of course, that’s exactly what YouTube wants you to do)

In order to maximize your efficiency and be able to successfully procrastinate productively, you must recognize when you are doing something unproductive. If I decide not to write (first priority), I should make a conscious note that I’m putting it off, and decide what I could do that would be the next most productive.

An example of this: Just now, I had opened up my Google Reader and gone through a few feeds before I thought to myself: you know, I haven’t written a post for my blog today (and I’m trying to write something every day now), that would be more productive than just going mindlessly through all these posts.

And so, here I am, writing this post. I had the framework for it in my mind for a while now, but because I was aware that I was doing something unproductive (and I certainly wasn’t adding to my Million Bad Words count), I came over here and threw it all down in one take.

Bam, said the lady.

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