Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Seven Useful Ways to Procrastinate

by Andre · 3 Comments

Professionell Prokrastination

Procrastination is a loaded word. If taken literally, any one task we’re doing at the moment is a decision to procrastinate on every other task we could be doing. But when most people talk about procrastination, they’re talking about the experience of feeling off-purpose with whatever they sense they should be doing. I say “sense” rather than “know” because sometimes the “should” hasn’t been explicitly identified.

Procrastination has a few aspects, but for now I want to skip most of them and focus on the one that I think is the elephant in the ballroom.

We need to acknowledge low levels of energy

Let’s face it. No one likes to consciously factor in a lack of energy to do the things we plan to do, especially when using a task management system that requires us to always focus on the most important task. At the extreme, this leads to a habit of choosing between doing things when we have relatively high energy, and not doing things when we have relatively low energy.

In GTD, tasks are triaged in order of context (current location and resources available), available time, available energy, and priority. Most people, including myself, tend to ignore the energy variable. After all, we wouldn’t write out a list of things to do if we didn’t have the energy to do them, right? Yeah, right.

It’s always possible to practice mindfulness at any level of energy

“Not doing things,” it’s usually not  actually do nothing. Instead, we engage in one of two types of action:

  • Arbritrary activities
  • Easy activities

Arbitrary activities are the kind that tend to make us feel like we’re wasting time. That’s because we’re reacting to moment-by-moment stimuli instead of consciously directing our activity toward something meaningful. “Meaningful” doesn’t have to be profound, just intentional. If I choose to play Sudoku during a window of uncommitted time, the enjoyment makes it meaningful activity, even if it’s low-yield relative to something else I could be doing. On the other hand, if I need to do a “quick” lookup that turns into a one-hour link safari, I’ll probably feel like I’m wasting time, even as I’m doing it.

Easy activities are the meaningful ones. They can be recreational, like Sudoku, but they can also be productive. Even when they’re not necessarily productive in terms of output, they’re useful for keeping your attention fixed on your goals and vision. Here are a few easy activities to make procrastination useful:

1. Social bookmarking. Using services like Delicious, StumbleUpon, Digg and Reddit to augment your web surfing allow you to save things you find across the web, annotate them with comments, and share them with others. If there’s someone you find interesting, you can take a peek into his or her shared bookmarks to find more relevant information than you might be just doing a search. I’m a huge fan of Merin Mann’s Delicious bookmarks, for instance. Put simply, if you’re going to procrastinate by surfing the web, make it a mindful activity by aggregating the useful stuff you come across.

2. Running. This is a great way to use a long break. I used to take 20-minute timed power naps, but now I find a 40-minute jog far more invigorating. The momentum you get after a run flows into whatever activity follows it. If you’d like to start running, but don’t know where to begin, try Leo Babauta’s great introductory guide, How to Go from Sedentary to Running in Five Steps. If you don’t have the luxury of running or doing another type of exercise in the middle of a work day, don’t be so sure about that. One commenter on Lifehacker negotiated a two-hour lunch break, starting work 30 minutes earlier and leaving 30 minutes later. This allowed him to go to the gym and finish the latter half of his workday on a second wind that transformed his experience of working.

Is exercising really procrastinating? I would say yes. When you’re trying to avoid mental exertion, physical exertion may not even seem like work.

3. Planning. We’re all aware of the danger of spend too much time planning and too little time doing. Then again, this is an article on procrastination, and planning is as useful as procrastination gets. To be honest, I’m not convinced that anyone spends too much time planning; it’s mostly an illusion. Without a complete course of action defined, it’s hard to people to know what they’re not doing, so they remain in a state of wondering what they’re not doing and feeling anxious about it.

4. Reviewing. Look at your calendar, project list and action lists, crossing off anything that you’ve already done, looking for things you can do as soon as you get bored with your procrastination binge. You might want to keep a context list or a checklist of low-energy next actions. GTD coach Kelly Forrister keep a list called @BrainToast.

5. Researching. It’s easy to compile too much information, especially with the resources at our disposal today. But the real value of doing research during low-energy periods is immersion. If your goal is to be a millionaire, there a certainly much more important things you could be doing to acheive that goal than reading tips from Donald Trump, but experiencing the mindset of an entrepreneur gives you a reference point for evaluating the rest of your activities. I like to use Google Notebook to compile information on people I’m interested in, potential projects, or products I’m trying to avoid buying on impulse. I’m sure I have the world’s largest Google Notebook about the iPhone.

6. Blog commenting. For bloggers, there are strategic reasons to leave comments on other people’s blogs. For everyone else, commenting is a great way to turn the passive activity of reading blogs into a mentally engaging one. You can summarize what you’ve read, helping you retain the key points. You can disagree with the post and offer your own point of view. You can agree with the post and compliment the blogger. You can supplement the post, or your disagreement with it, by providing links to additional resources. If you’re a blogger, you can generate ideas for your own posts by treating each comment as a microcosm of a new post.

7. Finding and implementing hacks for your favorite tools. If your livelihood leans heavily on your skill with Photoshop, Excel or WordPress, learning new tricks and tips can help make working with these tools more enjoyable or more efficient, even if the time spent learning them could be spent doing actual work.

Again, we’re treating procrastination here as inevitable, rather than pretending that we can banish it forever. Finding useful ways to procrastinate is like carrying a condom even if you’re committed to abstinence. Always assume imperfection, and have a fallback plan.

(Thanks to debagel for the photo)

Tags: Productivity


  • KerulNo Gravatar // Aug 7, 2008 at 7:06 pm

    Some really good suggestions here. But don’t think all procrastination is created equal.

    It can sometimes be good to procrastinate – it can lead to less struggle, delay (counter-intuitive, but true), and more optimal functioning.

    There’s a new book out titled Productive Procrastination, and it describes how to do it, how to tell productive from destructive procrastination, and how to end the destruction kind. It’s available on Learn more about the book at

  • RibeezieNo Gravatar // Aug 12, 2008 at 6:26 am

    Running works best for me! It gives me time to myself to reflect on everything. And somehow, it has a way of brining out my creativity :-P It’s my form of meditation and it works great!

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