When I was a child I used to think that we are born with certain talents and all we can do is either sharpen them or be below average. Today I find it very difficult to tell talents vs grit and determination. So why do we have procrastination in our DNA? For more ideas you are welcome to read here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
To do or not to do
So, I have 500 items in my “to do” list and I do not feel like doing anything right now. What should I do?
Each time I come to work after the weekend or come home after a long day at work it’s the same question. By now I would expect to have a damn good answer, but I really don’t.
Maybe if I was less creative, less rebellious, a bit less ambitious or not as educated, my answer would be simple. Practice makes perfect and provides a great opportunity for continuous improvement. Procrastination saves energy, provides opportunities to exercise creativity and allows noticing small things we would miss otherwise.
The real dilemma is not to be or not to be. We are programmed to survive. The true dilemma is to do or not to do when there is no urgent task.
Do not do tomorrow what can be delayed for a week
Urgency is one of the criteria for prioritization. If something is not urgent, it may change, typically for the best. Something we did not do will be done by somebody else. The scope of the project may change. We may be relocated to do a different job. A change might make the entire endeavor useless. Moreover, if we do some damage in the process, we will definitely be blamed.
It really makes sense to delay something that is not urgent. If nothing is urgent we can use the time to rest and enjoy. Nobody wants to be depressed. Too much productivity is often depressing and tiresome. When rested be are more effective and more capable to step out of our comfort zone.
Finish small tasks so that they do not pile up
A very different perspective is the perspective of a clean desk. In Japanese culture, everything that can defocus is carefully removed. People use only what they need to use, and when done put the items back into storage. The clean desk allows better focus on the task at hand.
In the same way, if we have small tasks we can work a bit to remove them from our task list so that we can concentrate on the big things. If for some reason we made a mistake, no big deal. On average we will be right dealing with small tasks even if we do this well before the tasks become urgent.
The elephant in the room
A very different prioritization is dealing with the biggest, riskiest and scariest task first. Once we deal with the elephant in the room, everything else will become easier and more clear. All other efforts invested in other tasks may be in vain if we cannot deal with the big issue,
Not everyone is suited to hunt the elephants. Most people are too intimidated by big tasks and do not know where to start. Elephant hunters are usually very respected and their bellies are full unless an angry elephant stomps them by mistake.
Elephant hunting often is all or nothing endeavor. Dealing with risky tasks is a risky position. Often it is handled by outsourcers who have nothing to lose, and management who can limit the losses.
Practice makes perfect
If we have some time to spare we can use it to learn new things and perfect our craft. For some reason, this possibility is underutilized, but it totally makes sense. We can take online classes, undertake training projects and perform simulations simply to be our better selves.
This is definitely a good practice between the jobs, between the projects on the job, during a project waiting for critical inputs.
The problem with this approach is very simple. Reading about all the trends is a daily activity, and learning a new subject takes some time. Unless we are at school or on sabbatical, we will likely get an urgent activity sometimes during our practice and maybe even quit in the middle, which is most unfortunate.
Best effort approach
Most managers cannot allow their team to disintegrate, so if there is no urgent task the team performs important tasks. Non-critical important tasks are not always benign. If the definition of the project changes, the team is left with a big chunk of something that is not suited to do the job, and yet is too valuable to throw away. This sunken cost can become sufficiently big and useless to offset the entire progress and slow everything like a dead weight.
Waiting for integration is another big issue. If a project is finished well before it is integrated, the team working on the project will likely forget what was done. So the big not-urgent activities tend to take all available time till they become urgent. They also tend to bloat in scope and lack of creativity, simply because the team has no incentive to be creative.
Embrace the sloth
After seeing the alternatives, doing nothing is not such a bad idea. When we do nothing, we actually do quite a lot. We can socialize with our peers, read professional literature, clean up things that require attention. Every creative thought and idea will catch our attention. Instead of dismissing it we will evaluate it out of pure boredom. This is often a recipe for a breakthrough.
Mindfulness is also something we can do when procrastinating. Improving self-regulation will also have a positive effect on our working memory. After a short period of procrastination, people tend to become very productive and creative.
The risks are also obvious. We need to procrastinate without time wasters. Stay away from social media and casual games especially when procrastinating. Do not be tempted by snacks in the coffee room. While it is more than OK to walk outdoors during the procrastination period, the management might not appreciate it. A person procrastinating can be a huge demotivator for his team.
A somewhat more productive form of procrastination comprises of doing the task we are most excited about. If we find a task interesting, we will likely get into the flow state and be very productive when working on the task. We will probably be creative and happy, and motivate the teammates with enthusiasm. There will be an atmosphere of creativity, work, and achievement even when there are no urgent tasks.
The best employees have fun at work every day. Quite often there will be no urgent tasks for these employees, as they will finish the whole stack of cool tasks ahead of time. The management will often appreciate the extra productivity and move the boring tasks to less productive employees.
Unfortunately, a job where we have fun is a dream job and the competition for each such position is fierce. Also, after having fun for a while we stop appreciating it and start making mistakes.
Step out of the comfort zone
The most extreme activity an employee can do is getting out of the comfort zone. There are many possibilities: doing the job that is actually assigned to another profession, helping out in a different project, writing a patent of a new product presentation.
Stepping out of the comfort zone requires high preparation and motivation, as we cannot truly count on our experience to save us. We need to be attentive, open, and creative, preferably well-rested. This is our chance to shine and be noticed or to suck and be ignored. People do not get many opportunities to step out of their comfort zone, and it is important to maximize each opportunity.
It is not reasonable to expect to stay in any one niche waiting for the urgent project to come. Most people will constantly move between niches and the choice to do or not to do will not be in their hands. Even if you happen to own a company you will find out that you are not entirely free choosing your tasks. A good balance between different approaches is a reasonable expectation, and something we can be perfectly happy with.