How to Turn Procrastination into Productivity

When I publish this, many people will respond, “I’ll read it… later,” or some variation of that.

First, that’s a funny joke. I get it.

Second, while I was writing this, I procrastinated pretty heavily. No surprise.

And what’s even better, I employed almost all of the techniques below to get over the procrastination. In fact, one of the techniques I mention below is to start in the middle.

It’s worth mentioning then, that the words I am writing now I am writing after finishing the article.

So here are the 11 ways to make your life more productive via procrastination.

1. Make a list (AKA, Plan B).

Make a list right now of 10 things you can do that will make you feel “productive.”

When you’re procrastinating, go down the list and do the tiniest thing you can do for each item on the list.

For instance, if I am procrastinating writing on a book I can take a break and start sending emails to potential podcast guests.

I procrastinated on writing this post. I even responded to emails from six months ago (that I procrastinated on responding to then).

The respondents appreciated it and I kept those business connections alive.

It doesn’t even have to be something related to “business productivity.” I can exercise, for instance. That will improve my ability to focus better in the long run.

2. Play.

Whenever I’ve been deeply unhappy in my life, I play games.

Games are actually good for you. They make you strive to improve. They improve various brain functions (spatial reasoning, problem solving, etc). They improve your ability to deal with failure (since often you will lose) and learn from your mistakes (if you study what you did wrong in lost games).

But games can also be escapist.

I was afraid to get married in my first marriage. I was scared I was too young. Twenty minutes before I was supposed to be at my own wedding, I was at my office playing one-minute chess against the Swiss Chess Champion. I figured, “I can’t stop doing this. I’m winning!”

That was bad.

Escapist gaming is no good. Try to do productive gaming instead. As long as I focus on improvement, it will make me better able to focus on the task at hand. I try to play in some way. I recommend Charlie Hoehn’s book on play (Play it Away), to see how he used it to decrease his anxiety and become more productive.

3. Experiment.

Everywhere I look I’m reminded of the importance of this.

A great example is Chris Rock. He goes on stage, does his act, and everyone laughs. Again and again.

But that’s not how he starts. He goes to “The Laugh Factory” in my hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, and takes some crumpled notes and just starts reading them out loud in his regular voice.

If people laugh at a joke, he knows he has something that can be developed. If people don’t laugh, he throws that joke away.

He experiments with thousands of jokes before he has an hour of material he can use on an HBO special.

If I am working on a project that is stagnating, I try to back up one step, try a different direction — experiment to see if this excites me more.

When I first started a company, we weren’t sure the best way to make money. So we experimented. We made software to see who would buy it (nobody). We started a record label (we almost signed one act and then they disappeared). We thought about starting a database for people in the entertainment industry (then IMDB came along).

We thought about making an automatic website developer but it was a lot of work (think WordPress). We even thought about making a tea company but we knew nothing about distribution.

But it wasn’t bad to experiment. Learning about each of these businesses gave me useful information.

Ten years later the lessons learned from how to start a tea company were useful in making a fund of hedge funds (you send out your tea/money to distributors/other funds and once a month you collect information from everyone and compile the data. Similar risks occur in each business.)

The ways we explored making money on the Internet in 1996 helped in 2009 to figure out what were the best things to invest in with the sharp rise of social media.

And even experimenting with a record label enabled us to land the job of doing the websites for many record labels (Loud, Bad Boy, Interscope, Jive, etc).

When I am less productive with writing, I try to experiment with the form a bit more. Or be creative in some other way.

While I was procrastinating on this article I wrote the first and second draft on a children’s book, an experiment I have never done before.


4. Consider that smaller is better.

When I am procrastinating on a book I take a step back and stop thinking about the whole book. I just try to outline what I want to accomplish with the exact page I’m working on.

The process is:

  1. Find a smaller task within the bigger task;

  2. outline it;

  3. set a mini-deadline for doing it;

  4. drink coffee;

  5. do.

When writing this I worried whether or not I really had ten things. Finally I said, “do one thing.” And BAM!

5. Don’t allow anxiety to take over.

It’s important to remember: anxiety will never solve tomorrow’s problems and will only steal away energy from today.

6. Surprise yourself.

If something is not interesting to me, I have a hard time finishing it. So I try and surprise myself.

If it’s a writing project I try to think of the most outrageous thing that has happened to me recently and put it down on the page. And when I put it down on the page I try to start with a word that is a surprise to me.

If you can surprise yourself, it’s a guarantee everyone else will be surprised — hopefully in a good way.

7. Start in the middle.

Starting a new project is often the hardest part.

Start in the middle so you don’t have to worry about the “official” start.

This reminds me of a Neil Gaiman graphic novel, “Black Orchid.” There’s a superhero, the Black Orchid, which “stars” in the comic book. BUT, right in the first few pages she is shot and killed.

What a genius thing. To create a pseudo-climax right in the first few pages. It’s almost like he started at the end.

I started this post with the list. Then I will go back and write the beginning.

And, by the way, the last line I wrote in this post was this one.

8. End in the middle.

Ernest Hemingway would anticipate his own procrastination when writing.

He would sometimes end a writing session while in the middle of a sentence, or paragraph. Then he would be more excited (and be more aware) of starting up again when he came back.

For instance, if you are a programmer, end right in the middle of an “If” statement before putting in the “Then” part.

9. Redefine the project.

This is similar to the breaking it down into smaller chunks, except… actually change the project so it is smaller.

When I was building the website, Stockpickr, which I eventually sold for significant money to, I launched with only a few features.

I had planned for many more. But it feels good to “launch,” and I wanted that good feeling.

The same thing can happen now with other types of projects. For instance — books. The definition of a “book” used to be mandated by the big publishers and big bookstores, i.e. 200-250 pages and 60,000 – 70,000 words.

Now this is out the window. Amazon and the rise of self-publishing have thrown out the definition of what a book is. I was just looking in the Entrepreneurship category where my 270-page book, “Choose Yourself” is #2. I sweated over that book for years.

At #1 is a 24-page book probably written in a week. Power to him. He had a solid idea, he wrote it up, he published it, and now it’s #1 in the category. A person can do that every month and write 12 books in a year and make a living that way.

Another time I was moving into a house I had bought (the last one I will ever buy and has long since been sold).

The construction workers wanted six more months to work on it. I said, “no” and moved right in. They felt so awkward with me right there that they finished up in a week.

Launch first, then finish.

10. Read.

I often get inspiration in the middle of writing by reading.

I’ll go back and forth between inspirational, informative, or well-written books. One will inspire me back to what I’m doing.

I can never underestimate the ability to absorb someone else’s life by reading about it. I’m a vampire sucking out their knowledge and making my brain more powerful.

11. Give up.

Not every project is meant to be finished.

You might be procrastinating because your body and mind might know that the project is simply no good but they have neglected to tell you that yet.

One time I started a company, built a site, and raised $500,000 for it. But it was a bad idea. I woke up the day after raising the money and I was shaking. I literally didn’t want to get out of bed and start to work on the site.

All I kept thinking was, “this is a bad idea and a year from now I’m going to have to explain where all the money went to all of the investors.”

So I ate the cost I had already put into building the website, I wired back all of the money, and shut down the business.

There’s a cognitive bias called “The Sunken Cost Fallacy” that applies to procrastination.

When we put time (or money) into something, our brains feel like, “Now I have to finish this.”

But it’s just not true. We don’t have to finish anything.

Often it’s good to take a step back and wait a long time (months or years), or simply give up.

It’s always good to have about five projects (no more and no less) going on at the same time. This gives you constant fuel as you go back and forth. You won’t create your way into a hole with just one project and you won’t feel overwhelmed with too many.

“Giving up” is often the most productive and efficient thing we can do to move onto the things that are more rewarding in the short amount of time we have.

I procrastinate on everything. On all 18 of my books. On all 20 of the businesses I’ve started.

In fact, this post is the result of procrastination on another post I’m writing on FAQ on quitting your job.

This post was my “Plan B.”

Sometimes I procrastinate calling people back and then I end up feeling guilty and never calling them back.

And there are things I am mid-procrastination on right now that I might never finish.

Who cares?

When I die those projects will remain unfinished forever.

But when I die my kids and loved ones will be crying for other reasons.

Or not.

(Editor’s note: To get discounted pricing on James’ books, Choose Yourself: Be Happy, Make Millions, Live the Dream, and Choose Yourself Guide to Wealth, follow this link.)