Dear Laura: I seem to thrive on time pressure. Whenever I have a big project, I find myself putting it off until the last possible minute. Then I race to get it done. I worry this isn’t healthy long-term. What should I do?
Everyone puts things off from time to time. Sometimes it’s just smart time management: Not everything needs to be done right this minute. Procrastination, on the other hand, has a specific and negative definition: It means delaying a task even though you know doing so will make you worse off.
This is almost always what is happening when we put off big projects to the last minute, even if you’re someone who “thrives on pressure” — because that’s probably an illusion. Contrary to popular perception, time pressure generally doesn’t produce better work. Indeed, some fascinating research by psychology and creativity expert Teresa Amabile and others finds that people actually produce fewer creative ideas when under pressure, even when they believe they’re being more creative.
“When creativity is under the gun, it usually ends up getting killed,” Amabile and her colleagues wrote in Harvard Business Review in 2002. “Although time pressure may drive people to work more and get more done, and may even make them feel more creative, it actually causes them, in general, to think less creatively.”
Procrastination is often about insecurity and self-doubt. It can feel great — even energizing — to get the work done in a rush right before deadline, because your brain is finally overcoming your inner critic. When you’re close to your deadline, you have to produce something, so you do. If what you produce is a bit slipshod, your brain rationalizes it: Maybe this isn’t your best work, but how could it be? You did it so quickly! Imagine what you could do if you put real time into it!
But rather than imagine such great and creative work, why not actually produce it? A few practical strategies can reduce the urge to procrastinate. As Amabile and her colleagues wrote, “The best situation for creativity is not to be under the gun. But if you can’t manage that, at least learn to dodge the bullets.”
First, break big tasks into smaller, doable steps. “Write a self-evaluation for my annual review” seems big and messy. An actionable task list might include tracking down sales numbers, emailing clients to ask for their feedback, looking through your calendar to remind yourself of big events, creating an outline for the evaluation, getting feedback from a mentor, and then actually writing it.
Make these steps so small that you feel no resistance to them. If you tend to get overwhelmed with submitting business expenses for reimbursement, for instance, your first actionable step might be to simply find and gather your receipts. If writing 1,000 words in a document seems overwhelming, just aim for 100. That doesn’t seem so bad, right?
Next, create a schedule for these doable interim steps. Work back from the deadline, leaving yourself plenty of space. If you start early enough, you can plan to get through just a small number of steps per day. Most people have more motivation and energy in the morning, so that might be a good time to tackle anything that seems difficult.
When you’ve done your steps for the day, don’t be tempted to do more. Instead, reward yourself. Go for a walk, buy a cup of your favorite coffee, chat with a colleague, call a friend.
The colleague or friend might also serve as built-in accountability. If they’re willing to help keep you on track, loop them in on your progress. Send a note at the start of the day saying that you’re going to check in when you’re done. If your morning gets derailed, a lunchtime note from that person asking what’s going on can nudge you to get back on track. (A good manager can also help with the accountability part: If you’ve both identified your procrastinating tendencies as something to work on, you may agree that they should check in with you more frequently.)
Finally, notice how good it feels to be done before the last minute. Notice how you improve your work when you leave time to come back to it and proofread or revise. Pay attention to the new ideas you come up with or the problems you spot and address. Note how confident you feel when you’re giving a presentation you’ve practiced multiple times. Or, if nothing else, appreciate getting a good night’s sleep the night before something big is due.
When that little voice in your head starts urging you to put things off because you “thrive” under the pressure, you want evidence that this little voice does not have your best interests in mind.
Of course, even if you stop procrastinating, you may still find yourself dreading a particular project. If that’s the case, pay attention. It may be a sign that your current job is not the right direction for you. That’s useful information, even if you’re not able to make a major change immediately. You might be able to shift your focus at work or avoid projects you don’t enjoy. If you don’t take them on, you won’t find yourself putting them off.
Laura Vanderkam, the time management expert who wrote Off the Clock and Juliet’s School of Possibilities, is here to answer your scheduling questions. Check back every week for more advice, and send your own productivity problems to email@example.com. (Your name will not be used.)