Editorial Notebook

Purposeful procrastination

A list of small tasks can help improve productivity

Procrastination happens.

Even the most hardworking people wait longer than they should before studying for exams or starting projects. Different coping techniques work for different people, but rarely can a silver bullet fix this kind of problem. Make a calendar? Keep a “to-do” list? Almost everyone wants better time management skills; almost no one finds the time to practice or improve.

I’m as guilty as anyone else. I often start my homework the night before; I sometimes even write papers the morning that they are due. This pattern dates back to elementary school, when I had trouble memorizing multiplication tables. Though I’ve tried just about every trick in the book, I doubt I will ever be consistently ahead on my work.

The reasons we procrastinate can be complicated. Laziness, the simple answer, rarely explains the behavior in full. For me, fear plays a role—fear of not knowing what to do, of failure. If I’m not confident I can succeed at an assignment, I’m very likely to put it off. Of course, those assignment are the ones I really need to start early, not late. Recognizing the problem has helped me improve, but I’m not cured yet. The process takes a while, and I still don’t start things as early as I should.

For busy people, though, putting off one thing can mean getting something else done. My apartment is cleanest when my roommates and I have big projects due the next day. We know we have to be productive, but we don’t want to do our homework. We end up doing our dishes.

This principle of useful distraction can apply to many situations. Recently, I started keeping a physical list of “little things” that I can (or should) do—things like “update resume for career fair” or “e-mail Grammy thank you note for cookies.” This provides plenty of productive alternatives to whatever it is I really don’t want to do.

I’m almost always avoiding something, but there’s also usually some other small task that I’m “in the mood” to do (or close enough). The guilt from avoiding a big assignment can be a powerful motivator for getting little chores done, just as long as you can remember all of them.

At RPI, we are all busy people, and most of us procrastinate. The little tricks—like keeping a list of productive “distractions”—won’t help the root problem, but they help treat the symptoms.