How To Make Procrastination Work For You

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By Blythe Robbins

Douglas Adams, author of the comic science fiction classic "The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy," once commented on his difficulties finishing projects on time.

"I love deadlines," he said. "I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."

Adams isn't alone. Three out of four college students consider themselves procrastinators, according to a 2007 study by industrial psychologist Piers Steel.

But if you consider yourself a hopeless case, don't sweat it! Even procrastinators can be productive, as John Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford, wrote in an influential 1996 essay, "How to Procrastinate and Get Things Done." The essay recently won Perry an Ig Nobel award--honoring "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think" -- from the Harvard humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research, 15 years after the essay was published. Hey, even Harvard procrastinates.

Read on to find out how you can be a procrastinator, but still get things done.

Strategy No. 1: Consider why you procrastinate.

If you have a tendency to put off big tasks no matter how important they are, it may be helpful to consider why you're procrastinating.

"As a coach, I've found that where there's cost, there's benefit. Meaning, while people may experience a cost from procrastinating, they also receive a benefit from it," said Jackie Trepanier, owner of Cultivated Coaching in Detroit, Mich. Trepanier often provides procrastination help as a leadership/career development and transition coach.

"Perhaps procrastination is a way to put off change. Maybe it's to put off the unknown for a little while longer, or to hold back from doing something that can be exciting but scary. I've also found that people procrastinate because they're not ready to do something. Until they're ready, they'll put off their next steps, whatever those may be," she said.

Figuring out the reason behind your procrastination can be the first step to realizing how to move forward.

Strategy No. 2: Be aware of distractions (and turn them off!).

There may be a benefit to procrastinating, but people admit that it doesn't necessarily make them happy. Steel's 2007 study found that not only is procrastination on the rise, it makes people poorer, fatter and unhappier. Yikes.

Even with good intentions, being productive can be incredibly challenging. With technology at your fingertips, distractions are often effortless and unnoticeable.

Particularly for college students who adeptly maneuver iPhone, iPad, iTunes, computer, and TV, these distractions can derail all productivity. Avoid distractions by turning off the TV or stereo. And if you can't resist the urge to check Facebook while writing a paper, consider an Internet-freezing app such as Freedom.

Strategy No. 3: Discover the art of productive procrastination.

Even with no distractions, however, it's difficult to suddenly stop procrastinating. Perry's Ig Nobel-winning essay described a system called "structured procrastination," which allows you to procrastinate while still getting work done.

"The procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important" wrote Perry in his 1996 essay, "How to Procrastinate and Get Things Done."

Perry's essay recommends that you "begin by establishing a hierarchy of the tasks you have to do, in order of importance from the most urgent to the least important." With your natural tendency to procrastinate, you'll avoid items on your list by completing others, and actually become productive in the process.

Strategy #4: The devil is in the details

Even if you've managed to complete the smaller, less important tasks on your "to do" list, facing the bigger, more important projects can be daunting.

"We often brainstorm a list of five things clients could do to break past the procrastination. Then, we decide on one action for the week from this list of five that they commit to taking that week," Trepanier said.

Taking larger goals and breaking them down into smaller steps makes the process more manageable. For example, if you have a large paper due, you can break down the project into smaller pieces: Brainstorm topic, create outline, write introduction, etc. Once you have these smaller tasks, you can commit to one action item to focus on until they're all complete.

Strategy No. 5: Create accountability.

No matter how you plan out the details, sometimes the one thing you need to be productive is outside help.

Courtney Lyons, 23, an editorial assistant, was a self-described procrastinator in college. It wasn't until Lyons entered the workplace that she stopped procrastinating.

"Now, being in the real world, I can't get away with procrastination like in college. In college, you only have to rely on yourself to get things done, whereas when you're working, there are so many other people involved in projects. I must rely on other people and they must rely on me," said Lyons.

Being accountable to co-workers helps Lyons stay on task. You can create accountability on a project in a number of ways: Meet with a regular study group, ask a friend to call you or make an appointment to discuss a paper draft with your professor.

With these five strategies to use, you've got all the tools you need to be productive. So what are you waiting for? Get to work!

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