To-Do's, Can-Do's, and The Art of Productive Procrastination

How I get shit done when I don't feel like doing shit.

I don't always procrastinate, but when I do, I do it productively.

...

All lies, of course. I still do the good ol' "procrastinate furiously until you're exhausted, miserable, and still unable to stop" from time to time.

Fortunately, it doesn't happen that often anymore.

So let's put it this way:

I don't always procrastinate, but when I do, I try to do it productively.

There, that's more like it.


The productivity spectrum

A lot has been written about productive procrastination, or structured procrastination, over the years, by people far more qualified than me.

By actual scientists, that is.

The questions are still open, though. Is productive procrastination an actual thing? Is productive different from structured? Is it helpful or harmful?

Fortunately, I'm not writing a scientific paper here, so here's how I see it:

In my world, productive procrastination is a way to get useful things done when the alternative is doing nothing of value and feeling bad about it.

The idea of productivity being a spectrum isn't exactly new, and here's my version* of it:

In my case, the productivity spectrum goes from burnout to flow, where burnout is being unable to do anything of value (or at all), and flow is being fully immersed in whatever you're doing (and enjoying it).

Now let's take a closer look at the middle part of the spectrum:

This is where productivity meets procrastination, or, more specifically, where "mindful procrastination" meets "productive procrastination".

I'll cover mindful procrastination in a separate article, so let's focus on productive procrastination today:

I see productive procrastination itself as a spectrum ranging from "mostly wasteful" to "mostly useful". From "almost pure procrastination, but in a useful manner" to "useful things, but not the ones I need to be doing right now.

Let's start with the "mostly productive" part of the spectrum first.

The "mostly productive" part of the spectrum

Let's say it's Monday and I need to write an essay called "Embrace Procrastination". Because why not?

Well, I'm not feeling exactly productive today. It's not too bad, I just can't focus on writing the essay.

I'm in the "mostly productive" part of the spectrum.

Here's what I could be doing instead of writing "Embrace Procrastination":

  • Cleaning my room and washing dishes.
  • Listening to the next chapter of "Atomic Habits".
  • Making calls and scheduling appointments.
  • Drafting my next essay, "I Like Dags".

All of this is useful, but it would be better if I sat down to write "Embrace Procrastination".

Yet it's impressive how many useful things I can accomplish this way! Sometimes I'll go through a week's worth of small tasks in less than an hour.

The best part of this? It usually results in one of the two positive outcomes:

  • I'll finish the small stuff and feel energized to move forward with the things I've been avoiding, e.g. go back to writing "Embrace Procrastination".
  • I'll catch the flow state while working on a different larger task, and end up doing much more of it than expected, e.g. finish writing "I Like Dags".

Both great outcomes as long as I'm mindful about what I'm doing. More on that below.

Now let's look at the "mostly procrastinative" side of the spectrum.

The "mostly procrastinative" part of the spectrum

Let's say it's Tuesday and I still need to keep writing my "Embrace Procrastination" essay.

But unlike yesterday, I'm feeling a lot less productive. Almost completely unproductive, actually.

I'm in the "mostly procrastinative" part of the spectrum.

The useful stuff from Monday like washing dishes and writing "I Like Dags" is off the table today.

Here's what I could be doing instead to prevent myself from sliding down towards pure unadulterated procrastination:

  • Playing CS:GO**, but doing it with the idea of improving my skill.
  • Watching YouTube, but only if the video is related to my interests.
  • Browsing Reddit, but being curious about a random new sub like /r/architecture that I've never visited before.

So I'm a lot closer to pure procrastination now, but not quite there.

The "but" part is the key difference. It's what aligns otherwise useless activities with my goals, even if very remotely. It's what keeps my conscious mind turned on and active.

And it feels very different than pure mindless procrastination.

The difference between "playing a time-wasting game" and "playing a time-wasting game, but deliberately trying to become better at it" is massive. As long as you're focused on improving, it almost feels like a useful activity.

The "but" part makes it feel less like "gorging on a bucket of ice cream while binging Netflix and feeling miserable" and more like "eating a few scoops of ice cream mindfully and focusing on your feelings".

You'll know the difference when you feel it!

It's not quite healthy or productive, it's a temporary measure that's a lot better than the alternative.

The dangers of productive procrastination

Is productive procrastination helpful or harmful?

I'll let the scientists battle this out, but here's what I think:

Yes, productive procrastination can be harmful. Especially when you're on the "mostly procrastinative" side of the spectrum, and are careless about it.

But there is a simple way to massively de-risk productive procrastination and harness its power to get more done and be happier about it.

It's the M-word.

Not THAT one. The other one.

Yes, mindfulness. If you don't like the M-word, let's put it simpler:

To make productive procrastination work for you, be conscious of what you're doing:

  • Be conscious of the activity itself. "Watching YouTube" without the "but" part is pure procrastination, nothing productive about it.
  • Be conscious of the time and the reason. It's supposed to be a short break to re-energize yourself for that other thing, not a way to push it out of your mind and keep worrying in the background.
  • Be conscious of your feelings. Productive procrastination should make you feel good about yourself. You're not wasting time and being useless, you're taking a timeout while being useful.

Keep this in mind and enjoy the benefits of productive procrastination!

In fact, it's good to keep this in mind at all times, procrastination or not.

To-Do vs Can-Do: make it easier to procrastinate productively

As we established, I try to procrastinate productively whenever I do it.

T0-do lists and backlogs are two things that make it easier for me.

Let me preface this by saying I was never a fan of to-do lists, day planners, and calendars:

  • To-do's always felt like pressure. Like there's always something I have to do, no matter how much I've done. Like I'm always behind schedule, always running late. Shudder.
  • Calendars felt like boxing myself in. Like I had to slice my life into pieces and stick them into these tiny time blocks every day. Life reduced to a grid of blocks. Ew.

I still don't like calendars. But I like getting shit done. And there's no getting shit done without planning.

So I had to come up with a compromise. Just like with everything else in life.

When it comes to planning, my three compromises are:

  • Calendars are for reminders, not for planning.
  • To-do lists and backlogs are detailed but flexible.
  • It's perfectly fine to treat to-do's as can-do's.

I don't use calendars for planning because they feel rigid and restrictive. But they work great to remind me of the important events, so why not. And not everything in life has to be calendar-level important. I'd even say most of the things aren't.

Now, I learned to love to-do lists, but I had to reinvent them. Most of the to-do apps weren't flexible enough, so I went with Evernote bullets and checkboxes. My to-do lists are often very detailed, but very flexible and fluid.

Here's my Evernote task manager in a nutshell:

  • I have backlogs, which are bullet lists of things I'd like to do. Some are area-specific or project-specific, others are global, but it's all very simple.
  • I have planners, which are checkbox lists roughly linked to time. It's what I'd like to do today, this week, month, year, but it's very flexible.

Simple, right? And here's how it works:

  • Whenever I have a new idea, I throw it into the relevant backlog. If it doesn't fit anywhere, it goes into the Life one.
  • Whenever I start a new day, week, month, I move a bunch of tasks from my backlogs to my planners.
  • And I do backlog grooming on an ongoing basis. Tasks get more detailed, bullets turn into checkboxes and get shuffled around, checkboxes nest and reproduce.

The fluidity of my task manager is its main strength. It lets me be organized while staying flexible.

So when Tuesday comes around and I don't feel like writing "Embrace Procrastination", I treat my to-do's as can-do's, and just pick something else.

Thanks to the task manager itself, I know the rough state of my timeline. I know the plans, the goals, the deadlines. So I know how big of a timeout I can take to procrastinate.

And thanks to my backlogs being detailed enough, there's always something I can pick that is a little less daunting than the thing I'm postponing, that will be useful and prevent me from circling down the pure procrastination drain.

Here's a quick example:

A few days ago, I felt like crap. I didn't sleep well, and I woke up hungover. (Productivity is the main reason I drink very rarely nowadays.)

And it was a writing-heavy day, so the top of my to-do list was all writing: book summaries, the next articles, a few other things.

I hated the idea of doing any of this. In fact, I spent the first few hours of the day mindlessly scrolling Reddit before catching and stopping myself.

What saved me? The power of productive procrastination, and treating to-do's as can-do's.

I checked my backlog while lying in the bathtub with an iPad. What stood out was my "Goals for 2022" project. It's the one where I'm outlining my goals for this year, surprisingly enough.

I had briefly worked on my goals last week and created the initial draft with a dozen or so of them. Crucially, I had already outlined the next simplest possible step: "For each goal, write a sentence about why I want to pursue it".

Very simple. Simple enough that I decided to do it despite not being a fan of iPad typing, not being too excited about "Goals for 2022", and being hungover. I just opened up my draft and started typing without thinking twice about it:

  • Keep writing at least 500 words every day. Why? Because...
  • Keep publishing 2 articles per week. Why? Because...
  • ...

I wasn't enjoying it, but it wasn't difficult either, and I ended up outlining all of it in under an hour.

And once I was done, I felt a lot better overall. Not good enough for writing, but good enough to pick up a few more tasks.

I listened to another chapter of Atomic Habits. That made me motivated enough to do a quick cleanup of my desk. And by the time I was done with the desk, I was ready to finally get to writing. And I did.

Was it a productive day? Hell no. I could've done a lot more.

Was it a good day? Hell yes. I could've wasted it all on Reddit and YouTube, and went to bed feeling absolutely miserable about my procrastination.

And so once again, the day is saved, thanks to... Productive Procrastination and Treating Your To-Do's as Can-Do's!

Next up on Cartoon Network: Mindful Procrastination.


* This is the current version, but I have a few others, such as the one where usefulness and intensity are split up into two different spectrums. I'll share it someday.

** I haven't played CS:GO for ages. Today it's mostly Soldat, an old little-known side-scrolling shooter.