How To Practice “Productive Procrastination”

Can’t face work? Then cultivate some side projects — and channel your work-avoidance into fun opportunities to learn

Clive Thompson

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A stop sign with two street signs on top of it, entitled “Homework Ave” and “Procrastination Pk”
Photo by Pedro Forester Da Silva on Unsplash

I’m a writer, so I procrastinate.

It’s almost syllogistic, right? I am a writer; all writers procrastinate; therefore, I procrastinate.

There may exist, somewhere, writers who do not procrastinate at all — who never poke around on Wikipedia or social media or Youtube instead of working. But holy moses, I’ve never met one. Every other writer of my acquaintance has the same issues. We all dawdle, delay the beginning of research, and postpone the dreaded act of actually typing sentences until a deadline growls behind us like a spectral wolf.

I wish I could tell you a secret to stop procrastinating. But I can’t, because I know of no cure.

There is, however, one tip I picked up years ago.

It’s not a salve for procrastination — but it is fascinating sort of hack. It won’t stop you from dicking around, but it might help you divert that energy in a more useful direction.

I learned the technique from the engineer, inveterate inventor, and energy expert Saul Griffith. In a post for Make magazine, he described “The Art of Productive Procrastination”. His technique employs one simple rule …

Flip between two projects to prevent focus fatigue

What does this mean?

Well, to start off with, Griffith notes that he too is a terrible procrastinator. He can’t stick to his to-do list. He’ll beaver away at his work attentively for a while, but then “focus fatigue” will creep in — and he’ll drift away.

But here’s the thing: Rather than fight these hummingbird tendencies, he works with them.

What Griffith does is set up a few side-tasks that require him to acquire a new skill: “Learning projects,” as he calls them. Often these are weird, offbeat and not immediately related to anything that he’s doing for pay. But the side projects are all — in some way — creatively intriguing, and better yet, they require him to pick up and practice a new skill. That means they’re fun to…

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net