Procrastination simply means putting off tasks until later. This simple little tactic gets a huge amount of attention in business and self-help literature because it creates conflict between our minds and our bodies.
Procrastination lives in the gray area between motivation and self-care. When you aren’t sure whether to keep working or call it quits, it’s easy to listen to temptation.
The funny thing is, you can be tempted to stop working too soon and to overwork to the point of diminishing returns.
You can beat procrastination by not putting yourself in a tempting position. The key is to know yourself and balance your motivation with your ability to focus.
With the right attention management tools and some patience, you can not only optimize your productivity – you can feel great while you work.
Okay, this is a trick question. Procrastination is both a blessing and a curse, depending on context.
Sometimes, your mind says yes – but your body says no. In these cases, should you force your way through tasks, heedless of quality? Is it wise to do sloppy work when you’re exhausted?
Of course not. Pushing yourself to work harder and faster when you don’t have it in you only decreases your productivity. If you force yourself to work hard during your low-energy times, you’ll only damage your productivity.
Say it’s a Wednesday. You’re tired and feel a headache coming on. However, you decide to stay late and complete just one more task before heading home. You finish this task but use up your stamina for the rest of the week.
On Thursday and Friday, you complete two fewer tasks each day than normal. By working yourself to the bone on Wednesday, you increased your daily productivity by 1 task. However, you decreased your weekly productivity by 3 tasks.
If you had accepted your low-energy state, gone home on time, and binge-watched your favorite show, your week would have looked very different.
You would have had the energy to put in a normal amount of work on Thursday and Friday, breaking even for the week. By not working more and trying harder, you would have completed 3 more tasks.
However, this isn’t always the case. Sometimes 5 pm rolls around – and you’re on fire.
Should you head home? Or, should you stay late and make the most of this extra burst of energy?
Procrastination isn’t black and white. You won’t achieve optimal productivity by pushing yourself too hard or too little (or by bouncing back and forth between these extremes).
Wise professionals balance their workloads, ambitions, and self-care activities to increase their weekly and monthly (not daily) productivity levels.
Much to the frustration of teachers and parents, attention is a limited resource. Today, doctors diagnose many children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). They stare out the window, start many tasks without finishing, and misplace their possessions. People with ADD have trouble making plans, staying organized, following instructions, and listening to others.
Does this sound familiar? Do you behave this way when you get the 2 pm blues? Do you find it hard to pay attention, even though you have important tasks to complete?
In an 8-hour work day, how many hours do you spend at your best? How many hours do you spend just surviving the work day?
In his book, How to be a Productivity Ninja, Graham Alcott describes three basic types of attention:
Proactive Attention: You’re in the zone, feeling good, and working steadily on priority tasks. Work on your biggest, most important, and scariest tasks. Reach out to new clients and contacts, prepare presentations, and create new value. Spend your limited high-productivity hours on top-priority tasks and new ventures.
Active Attention: You’re trying to stay focused and getting some work done, but you can easily become distracted. Use this time to attend to short, easy, and repetitive tasks that don’t require your best attention. Organize your calendar, answer routine emails (putting the hard ones off until later), and work in short sprints. Avoid overwhelm by creating success on small tasks and working slowly. You’ll get much more done in an unremarkable work hour than in a “work too hard and crash” session.
Inactive Attention: You’re taking a break, pretending to work, or just staring off into space. Use this time for mindless tasks like cleaning out your desk, refilling your printer paper, and simple data entry. For example, a manager might take a broom from an entry-level employee, sweep up the back room, and clear their head. This task might not be the best use of their time, but it’s better than nothing. In fact, it might just impress their employees and give them a “working break” from thinking and creativity.
According to the Harvard Business Review, attention is a more valuable resource than time. In today’s information-rich world, smart managers have learned to manage their employees’ attention, not just their time.
They help their team members stay focused by sticking to priorities and avoiding the temptation to focus on a different topic every week. Too many priorities—and too much information—creates confusion, decreases confidence, and reduces productivity.
Attention management is even more essential for people who manage their own time. Freelancers, entrepreneurs, and certain salaried employees enjoy great freedom and flexibility in their work life. However, they run the risk of yielding to temptation and either overworking or over-procrastinating.
It takes a lot of integrity to keep working when you want to stop – and stop working when you want to keep going. Management is an art – and self-management doubly so.
Observe yourself throughout your work day, using a simple time tracking app. Take note of your focus level each hour and identify your most (and least) productive times.
Do you sit at your desk first thing in the morning in Active Attention mode, answering low-priority emails until you wake up enough to enter Proactive Attention and take on more important tasks?
Do you get virtually nothing done in the hour after your lunch break? Do you quietly digest and check your Instagram feed instead of undertaking tasks?
Do you feel your “second wind” coming on after your post-lunch crash? Are your body and mind fueled-up, rested, and ready to engage with top-priority tasks?
Do you fall back into Active Attention as the end of the day nears? Do you doggedly keep working, trying to cram in just one more task?
By studying your daily habits (the same every day, for most of us), you can increase your self-awareness and plan your days accordingly.
In Getting Things Done, David Allen highlights the “next action” decision-making tool. With this tool, you can cut through the mental fog of unnecessary planning and take concrete action – even if that action is packing it in after a 10-hour day.
For example, the next time you find yourself staring blankly at your computer screen, ask yourself, “what’s the next action I need to take?” Don’t take on any major projects when your attention is low.
Instead, review your daily tasks. What needs to be one today? What needs to be done this week? What can you put off until later?
Use both healthy procrastination and self-motivation. Put off big tasks, unless they must be done today.
Choose tasks that take only a few minutes and break down large projects into small steps.
However, don’t get caught up in planning out your entire day – or an entire project. Just identify the next small step, do it, and move on.
Lydia K., an MIT master’s student who blogs for MIT Admissions wrote,
MIT is about optimization. You have limited time and energy; the biggest challenge here is deciding what to do with it.
Attention, not time or money, is your most potent (and often most limited) resource. In today’s information-soaked workplaces, successful managers and self-managers optimize productivity with flexible workflows that make the most of all attention states (proactive, active, and inactive).
Know yourself, know your team, and track attention as closely as productivity. Don’t worry – Toggl Track has your back. We make it quick and easy for teams and individuals to log their hours and note their high and low attention times.
With Toggl Track, you can avoid both procrastination and burnout – and get the most out of every day!
Teams of 10+ are eligible for a personalized demo to see how Toggl Track can meet your time tracking goals