The art of productive procrastination

The Art of Productive ProcrastinationLast week I signed up for one on one mentoring with Gabriela Pereira of DIY MFA to help me build a stronger author platform. She sent me an author questionnaire and gave me a whole week to work on it, but I told her she would likely have it sooner–I was procrastinating pretty hard on some administration stuff for my freelance business. She mentioned that she loves the tactic of productive procrastination, which got me thinking. Productive procrastination is one of the core principles of my life, and since I know we all struggle with the un-productive kind of procrastination, I’ve decided to¬†share it with you.

So what is productive procrastination?

Productive procrastination is the act of procrastinating on something you really don’t want to do by doing something else on your to do list, ideally something equally important or at least close to it. In fact, you probably already do productive procrastination. If you’ve ever found yourself washing dishes because you’re avoiding a tough scene, that’s productive procrastination. Our minds are programmed to be active, so your subconscious has found another productive way to use your energy.

The trick is to be intentional about it. If you really don’t want to do something–and you don’t have a pressing deadline–ask yourself what the next most important task is. Cleaning your house is great, but is there something else you can do that will push you closer to your dream life? Make a deliberate decision to do that thing instead. Your house can likely wait another day, but the days you procrastinate on your career add up fast.

Creating a productive procrastination system

As with most things in life, it’s easiest to maximize the benefits of productive procrastination if you create a system. The way I’ve created my system is by building a kind of table/27chart with a variety of productive activities, each one given a ranking based on importance and the amount of time/energy required to complete the task:



This system makes it easy for me to decide what to do when I feel like procrastinating. Typically I try to do either the next most important thing on my list or something that serves as a warm up for the thing I’m avoiding. If I’m avoiding the next chapter of my book, I’ll write a character exercise or a blog post. If I’m avoiding my blog, I’ll work on fiction or social media. If I don’t even want to look at my computer I’ll clean the house or read. My chart is a road map reminding me that there’s always something I can be doing to improve my career.

I’ve used this system for so long I don’t need to look at it, but you might want to create your own chart and keep it somewhere visible. The wall above your writing space is a great place.

Using productive procrastination to eliminate guilt

Living with a mental illness means that sometimes I’m procrastinating because I don’t feel well enough to complete the tasks on my to do list. I’m also incredibly stubborn, so I insist on doing something no matter how awful I feel. Sometimes I refuse to even admit that I feel awful, although I know that’s the real reason I’ve spent two hours finding interesting people to follow on Twitter.

My productive procrastination list serves as a handy reminder of what I can and can’t do on these days. It’s very similar to the way other people with mental illnesses create lists of what they can do based on how many spoons they have. With the chart imprinted on my brain, I can always find something productive to do, no matter how small. I can also use it to remind myself that the things I haven’t accomplished that day simply required more energy than I had. Another day I will have that energy. This allows me to feel proud of what I did accomplish instead of guilty about what didn’t get done.

A quick note about social media and productive procrastination

You might have noticed that in the last point, I mentioned spending two hours on Twitter. This probably sounds counter productive, because the way most people surf Twitter is counter productive. I do sometimes fall into that trap, but for the most part I keep my social media usage highly focused. If I’m on Twitter for two hours at a time it’s usually because I’m hunting for reviewers and other writers to connect with. Sometimes it’s because I’m participating in Twitter chats, which are a great way to form deeper connections with people. I’ve even met beta readers this way.

Social media only counts as productive procrastination if you do it with focus. Aimlessly wandering around the different social media sites all day might be fun, but it’s not going to further your creative career. You need to build a social media strategy before you can add it to your productive procrastination list. Figure out who you want to connect with, why you want to connect with them, and where you’re going to do it.

Final advice

Productive procrastination is one of the most powerful tools in my creative toolkit. It helps me accept and work with the boundaries created by my mental illness. It also helps me ensure that everything does eventually get done, even if not in the timeline I originally intended. Most importantly, it works for me and my creative process. It might not work for yours, but it’s certainly worth a shot, don’t you think?

Have you ever attempted productive procrastination? Let me know about it in the comments section below!

4 thoughts on “The art of productive procrastination

  • Kay Solo

    I’m “guilty” of this in that I do other chores to avoid the stuff I really should be doing, but I never thought about doing something like choosing a related task. My logic is usually to focus on the smallest tasks on my list, because when I check off a bunch of things, I start feeling more motivated, and that way I work myself up to the other things. That’s how it *should* go, anyway; it oftentimes… doesn’t.

    I think I could make this work by, maybe instead of writing, I can do planning instead. I usually map out the major events I need to happen in each part/chapter, so usually once I get that going, I start feeling like getting to actual writing. I guess it all comes down to what I feel like I can do at the time; if I can get started on any part of it somehow, I can usually build my way up to the thing I’m actually supposed to do.

    • dlgunn

      “My logic is usually to focus on the smallest tasks on my list, because when I check off a bunch of things, I start feeling more motivated

      This is actually how a lot of people I know use similar lists to help cope with depression. Being able to point at a list and say “I accomplished all of these things today” can make a huge difference in how you feel about yourself.

      Planning/brainstorming is another big thing I do when I don’t feel ready to face my projects; not sure why it didn’t make this list.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Great blog post! I practice a less “intentional” version of this that is a natural part of my creative process, whether writing, drawing, project planning, etc. I love that you added the “list/priority” aspect. Thanks for sharing!

    • dlgunn

      Thanks! As a freelancer living with mental illness (and at one point a pretty severe repetitive strain injury) I’ve struggled a lot to create a schedule that makes sure I do all the things without restricting me so much that it feels suffocating. I still haven’t found the perfect balance, but I get a little better at it every year and lists/charts like this one are a huge part of that process.

      Thanks for stopping by!

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