Sian Meades-Williams tells Freelance Corner readers of the power of procrastination.
We are a generation obsessed with productivity. We’re encouraged to optimise every minute of our time. The internet is full of articles telling you how to stop procrastinating and stay focused (and I’ve even written one). I do some of my best work when I’m not doing anything, least of all the thing I am supposed to be doing. I’m a firm believer in the benefits of procrastination.
Procrastination derives from the Latin “crastinus” which loosely means “belonging to tomorrow”. I love this idea, it makes putting off the tasks on my to-do list sound wildly romantic. It sounds relaxed, positive, it makes me want to take my time. There’s no rush.
We talk about procrastination in such negative terms, but it can be a positive tool. I can power through my to-do list and cross off every single task when I’m putting off the one that’s most important. That work still needed doing. There’s a belief that procrastination is lazy, but I think the opposite is true. I think people who procrastinate are intuitive in how they want to spend their time, and what their brains need.
Identify why you are procrastinating
I procrastinate when something is too hard. When I’m not ready for it. Usually I hit a wall when I haven’t given myself time to think, or I’ve unhelpfully written “write article” on my to-do list, without dedicating any time to plan or research. Sometimes we need to take smaller bites.
Zabby Allen, founder of the Procrastination Paper agrees. “For me it’s an avoidance technique. I’m always avoiding something that I don’t feel very sure about. It’s so often tied up in self doubt and fear.”
Zabby’s monthly independent magazine is a brilliant example of how something positive can come out of procrastination. The idea struck her while she was making some changes in her freelance career. “I’d never really stopped to think about what I wanted to do with my life so I took a month off freelance work to figure it out. I knew I wanted to make a magazine and when I was in the middle of planning, I downloaded a time management app and realised I was spending four hours on my phone every day. It was obvious where my time was going.” The mini magazine has a different theme each month and the tagline “waste some time offline” is one that really resonates. We all have a time suck and there’s no denying that the internet is a wonderful method for distraction. For some people it’s Instagram, for others it’s YouTube videos of kittens.
That self doubt and fear that Zabby talks about means that we have a lot of negative feelings around procrastination, and our own productivity. Are we doing enough? What if our peers are just getting much more done? We use it to beat ourselves up when what we’re doing is important. There’s huge power in mindlessness. I know I’m really avoiding a job when I go running instead of writing. By the time I’m halfway in, I’ve often solved whatever glitch I was having with my article. I've thought of a new angle, or rewritten the ending. Last week I figured out plot points of my novel while I was cleaning the bath.
Harness the creativity that procrastination gives you
Mindless activities allow our brains to wander without us entirely switching off. They’re working on the problem without us. Slowly, in the background, while you’re getting the mould remover right into the corner tiles (look, we’re all dealing with lockdown in our own way). Sometimes the best work comes when we don’t force it, when we let ourselves relax instead of trying to push words out at our desks. Self-flagellation isn’t the path to creativity.
While I’m all for bumbling about, especially during lockdown, we don’t always have the luxury of time when multiple deadlines are looming and procrastination can lead to panic. Breaking down your task into very small pieces can really help when you’re a deer in the headlights about your to-do list. Your 1000-word feature becomes a series of achievable goals, and you get the joy of ticking every single one off your list. If you’re really up against it, try structured procrastination – tackling two equally unappealing but important tasks at the same time. By the time you’ve finished one, you’ll be crying out for the other. My flat is never cleaner than when my tax return is due.
Many of my own projects have been born out of procrastination, including a side project while I was in a job I hated that transformed my freelance career, and Freelance Writing Jobs (I was supposed to be writing an essay about Virginia Woolf). You can learn a lot from the things you choose to do and the things you always avoid. Listening to that voice can help you push your career in the right direction.
When we listen to what our brains are telling us: that we need a little more time to figure things out, that the task is too big and we need to break it down, our procrastination becomes productive. Our self care gives way to creativity. And we might even get a clean bathroom out of it.