You have a deadline. You have two weeks. And you’re not working on it. Why?
In my last post, I mentioned that I often procrastinate because I get away with it. And though that idea can certainly be applied to the topic at hand, there is a big “but” that I want to unpack.
In my experience, and also from what I’ve heard others describe, there are two kinds of procrastination — inspired and uninspired. I’m not sure if I made up those names or not, but let’s just roll with it anyway.
This is the icky kind of procrastination. The one where you are not doing something that you’re supposed to be doing that you don’t want to do. It comes with this nasty sensation in your chest that crawls down to your stomach and up to your throat. I call this the precursor to the regret you will feel later.
Maybe you have a deadline for a job you don’t like. Maybe you have a tedious side hustle that helps you save money. Maybe you have an assignment for a class you didn’t want to take in the first place. Maybe you agreed to take on a project because you didn’t want to be mean and say no. Maybe you have to clean your garage.
Whatever it is you have to do, you don’t want to do it because it’s boring, uninspiring, and unrewarding. But you still have to do it because you need the grade, the money, or the friend.
But, as I said, you don’t want to because you don’t really get anything meaningful out of it. The task you’re doing does not meet your deeper needs. I get it.
I often engage in uninspired procrastination mostly out of pure, childish laziness. Sometimes out of futile protest.
When faced with a boring and unrewarding task, of course, my natural instinct is going to be to put it off as much as possible and hope that future me feels differently.
One lesson that I struggle to grasp but was confidently espousing to my 11-year-old nephew the other day was that — she doesn’t. Future me finds it just as boring and unrewarding as I do. She just has no choice but to do it.
Ideally, if your life is centered around tasks you don’t want to do because they make you feel miserable, you may benefit from re-evaluating your circumstances and seeing if there is any way you can tweak them.
I realize, of course, that that isn’t always possible. But if you are self-employed or a freelancer, or in charge of your own schedule in any way, you have that freedom. And there are plenty of strategies you can use to stop procrastinating.
In the future, I might share a strategy that worked for me while I was working from home during lockdowns. But, I’ll do it later.
All that being said, I think the best way to deal with uninspired procrastination is just to find a way to stop procrastinating. Most of the time, you just have to suck it up, sit down, and power through it.
But there is another kind of procrastination that looks like procrastination, feels like procrastination, and tastes like procrastination, but is definitely not procrastination.
I don’t just procrastinate on tasks I don’t enjoy doing, okay? I also put off the fun, creative work that I do find highly rewarding as much as humanly possible.
But not by choice.
Let’s take writing as an example. I come across a lot of articles that give excellent writing advice, and most of them are “Write consistently. Write as much as you can. Write a little bit every day. Post something every day.”
And I want to agree wholeheartedly, especially when it comes to writing a lot. But writing a little, every day, consistently.… That one is just not for me. Because I can’t write when the words are not ready. Even with a looming deadline.
That doesn’t mean that I’m not thinking. Or that I don’t write a lot. In fact, I find myself writing for hours in the most random places at the most questionable times of the day.
I just don’t write regularly. Trust me, I would love to be able to stick to a consistent writing schedule! But I don’t. Because I don’t actually want to.
I don’t think that excellent, well-meaning advice works equally well for everyone.
Some people work better in bursts of inspiration that allow them to enter a flow state and get more done in a single sitting than they would have with a more consistent, systematized approach.
Different personality typologies attempt to explain this in their own ways. These are your Perceivers in the MBTI, your Type B personalities, your Sanguines, your Influentials in DISC, your Get-Things-Going types in the Interaction styles, your high-in-openness-low-in-conscientiousness types in the Big 5.
Anyway, whatever you want to call them, these are people who do not benefit by structuring their workflow in a regular, systematic way to get a little bit of productive work done every day.
Because a lot of the creative work happens when they are not trying to work.
If you know when the deadline is and you know what is expected of you, one of the best things you can do is to leave your mind alone for a while as it gathers and synthesizes information while you do other things.
You are basically saying, “Okay brain, you have this much time to figure this out. Go!”
If it takes your mind longer to get into gear, trying to squeeze ideas out of it before it is ready is going to be a waste of time. Your workflow is going to be slower and more frustrating, and the result will be sub-par.
This is not procrastination. It is simply your natural process. Yes, we live in a world that values order, structure, measurable progress, and consistency. But if you are a creative who has the freedom to work in bursts, please don’t beat yourself up for not getting it done early or chipping away at it a little bit every day.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you should be irresponsible. If you work with or for someone else, you should still take accountability, meet your deadlines, and respect their time and needs.
However, as long as your work gets submitted on time and you and your client/employer/collaborator are satisfied with the result, who cares how you got there?
If you are working on your own project, and you’re trying to act out strategies that are designed for other types of people who access and manipulate information and resources differently than you — please stop.
If you know that you can write a killer 10,000 words in one night, why would you force out 1000 mediocre words every day?
The reason writers, in particular, tell you to follow a systematic approach to writing is that inspiration is unreliable. You can’t guarantee that you will be inspired, especially not in time for a deadline. (Although a strict deadline is pretty inspiring).
But it is often through gathering experiences elsewhere — while not writing, not working, not creating — that we find pieces of that inspiration. They will come together when the time is right.
Also, to be clear, I am not saying not to write every day, or not to have a designated writing time. Sometimes, you have to invite inspiration. And it can be found in the strangest of places. Even while trying to write.
Just don’t try to stick to a regular schedule because you think you have to.
If you think you might be an inspired procrastinator, the best thing you can do is trust and encourage your process. Sometimes, it takes me 5 minutes to write something. Other times, it takes me 5 months.
There are times when the ideas won’t stop flowing and times when my mind is dry. As unpleasant as those times are, I usually take it as an indicator that I should be doing anything other than writing. And I choose to go with it, knowing that I’ll be ready when I’m ready.
However, if you are working with deadlines, you can play around with your workflow. With a little trial and error, you will find your most creative hours and how long it takes you to get something done. Just don’t be surprised if it changes.
And the rest of the time, you can relax and let your mind do its thing — blissfully ignoring all the well-meaning time management advice that is not meant for you.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to hear me talk about procrastination some more, you can do so here:
Also, please feel free to share your strategies for working around inspired and uninspired procrastination. I would love to hear them.