Putting play before work may seem irresponsible, but experts argue that this counterintuitive move might actually make you more productive in the long run.

Power of an Hour

Mozart was out drinking one day when his friends became uneasy. It was 3 November, 1787 in Prague and the next day was the premiere of his latest opera, ‘Don Giovanni’. It was set to become one of the most acclaimed musical works in history, a true masterpiece that’s still doing the rounds in opera houses across the globe centuries later.

There was just one problem: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart hadn’t written the introduction yet. Evidently, the master composer was also an expert procrastinator, since he had actually been working that day – just on something else.

According to an account published in 1845, eventually Mozart’s companions convinced him that he could delay no longer and at midnight he went back to his room to get to work. He slogged away all night, as his wife plied him with punch to keep him awake. In the end, he pulled it off, but it delayed the next evening’s performance because there wasn’t time for the introduction to be copied or rehearsed.

Ahh, procrastination. If you’re the kind of person who stays up all night researching niche phenomena – like, say, why some farmers used to make their chickens wear spectacles – whenever you have a deadline looming, or who, like Mozart, will work on anything but the most urgent tasks to create the illusion of productivity, then you may be in need of help.

A model unschedule will never contain the words ‘write book’, ‘finish presentation’ or ‘revise for exam’

Though procrastinators often seem almost proud of the habit – there’s even a National Procrastination Week in honour of it (it’s supposed to start in early March, but it’s often delayed, of course) – there’s overwhelming evidence that it’s a bad idea. One 2013 study found that the worst offenders tend to have lower salaries, shorter employment durations and are more likely to be jobless or under-employed. It’s not even fun: as everyone knows intuitively already, procrastinators tend to be more stressed overall, and there’s some evidence that the habit could even make you ill.

In fact, the pastime can be so utterly crippling that it’s been given a new joke definition: “Procrastination (noun). The action of ruining your life for no apparent reason.”

Enter ‘unscheduling’: an upside-down approach to help chronic postponers get their lives back on track. Like most time-planning methods, the technique involves creating a weekly schedule that blocks out specific time periods for particular tasks. The twist is that rather than making a plan for the work that you have to do, you do the opposite: schedule in activities that you would like to do, such as meeting a friend for dinner, as well as activities that are necessary for keeping yourself happy and in working condition, such as going for a run and getting enough sleep each night. Finally, you add in whatever you have already committed to, such as holidays and meetings. The key is not to schedule in any plans for work whatsoever. A model unschedule will never contain the words “write book”, “finish presentation” or “revise for exam”.

Those of us who finished our dissertations in one to two years as opposed to three to 13 years, we were the ones who were busier in our lives - Fiore

The unschedule was invented by the psychologist, author and skilled procrastination-avoider Neil Fiore and published in his book, The Now Habit, in 1988. It has since acquired a cult following, appearing in blogs, online videos and other self-help books, even entering the repertoire of mainstream psychotherapists.

Fiore first became interested in the perils of delaying tactics when he was working at the University of California at Berkeley. By then, he had already developed some techniques for working more efficiently and managed to write up his doctoral thesis in just one year – impressive considering that, on average, students tend to take about nine or 10 months longer than they mean to – and in some cases, the task can drag on for decades (the record is 77 years, but there were extenuating circumstances). So he began a support group for people who were struggling with their dissertations.  

Over subsequent months, Fiore noticed something surprising. “Those of us who finished our dissertations in one to two years as opposed to three to 13 years, we were the ones who were busier in our lives,” he says. “We had relationships, social events and in my case I was working a 40-hour-a-week job.” The year of the write-up, he went skiing every other weekend. “There was a lot of snow that year!” he says.

On the other hand, the people who were dragging out their write-up were always suffering. “Their lives were all about work and ‘have tos’ – ‘have to finish all this work’,” he says. Those of us who were busy with other activities started earlier in our day on our task, for 30-60 minutes, sometimes 90 minutes at a time, because we had a life to live,” he says.

The unschedule works because rather than peering tentatively at your diary and baulking at a sea of dull meetings, overwhelming life admin and intimidating tasks like “write a book”, instead you see a week that you can actually look forward to. It’s about control: rather than cancelling lunches and postponing gym sessions in order to devote yourself completely to a particular project, you can slot it neatly into the life that you want to lead. And with all of your leisure and commitments laid out ahead of you, it becomes clear exactly how much time you will have for work. Then all you have to do is get started.

Of course, that second part is a little bit more complicated. So first it helps to understand the reasons people procrastinate in the first place. Why do we choose to simmer in stress for hours, when we could get started immediately?

Jane Burka, a licensed psychologist based in Oakland, California, is co-author along with psychologist Lenora Yuen of the book “Procrastination: why you do it, what to do about it now”, which advocates using the unschedule. They met while they were working at the Student Counselling Center at the University of California at Berkeley and – like Fiore – first became interested in procrastination after helping students to avoid it. They could relate to those they were helping because they had both struggled to complete their doctoral dissertations. “We were major procrastinators!” she says.

In the course of their work, the psychologists noticed that delayers tended to have a lot in common, from relating to time in a vague and unrealistic way to indulging in that arch enemy of productivity, perfectionism. But she also noticed that the habit of postponing important tasks may have deeper psychological roots. “Procrastination is widely misunderstood as a simple problem of poor time management or laziness,” she says.

Instead, Burka realised that those who procrastinated the most tended to have low self-esteem. “Your best efforts can't be judged if you’ve waited too long to put in your best efforts. It's safer to blame procrastination for a disappointing result than to feel your best wasn't good enough. And if you do manage to do well at the last minute, you can feel exhilarated that you pulled off the impossible,” she explains.

It's safer to blame procrastination for a disappointing result than to feel your best wasn't good enough - Burka

This is where part two of the unschedule comes in. Once you’ve made your weekly plan, the idea is to avoid intimidating yourself with giant, scary plans like “complete tax return”. Instead, you’re asked to begin by focusing on the task in hand for just 15 minutes, because anyone can commit to that amount of time. It’s all about making a start, rather than aiming to finish: this helps to avoid some of the anxieties that people may have about their goals. “This reinforces the idea that progress happens a little bit at a time, not in one Herculean effort,” says Burka.

Fiore came up with the idea for the 15-minute rule while he was helping people who suffered from phobias. “I treated procrastination as a phobia, a phobia of your work,” he says. “Anything you define as threatening or dangerous, you tend to avoid. In overcoming it, we face it in small bits.” He calls it “fear inoculation” and points out that the classic way to overcome a fear of spiders, for example, is to start by just thinking about a spider 10 feet away from you – and not running away.

In fact, the idea that procrastination is a mental health issue is becoming increasingly mainstream. Research has shown that that stallers are more likely to have depression and anxiety, while a 2014 study found that students suffering from ADHD-related inattention were more likely to procrastinate. It’s even been suggested that Mozart would have been diagnosed with ADHD or its close cousin, Tourette syndrome, if he had been born today. His biographer wrote he was easily distracted from serious concerns, while his sister once said – with a ruthlessness that only a sibling could achieve – that he was “like a child”. Clearly the composer had plenty of underlying problems that could have led him to leave things to the last minute. 

Finally, Fiore recommends changing the language that you use to describe your work: rather than saying “I must” or “I have to”, he suggests saying “I choose to”. This reframes your work as something positive, and dissolves the internal battle you might be having between wanting to loll around on the sofa and feeling you need to get to work. “’I am choosing to face something’ – only humans can choose surgery, or choose graduate school, or choose things that are difficult,” he says.

So the next time you find yourself mindlessly checking your social media for the hundredth time in 10 minutes or prioritising less important projects because you’re scared of a glaring task ahead, don’t think “I must schedule in more time for work” or “I will complete this now”. Ironically, it might be better to do 15 minutes – and then go out and enjoy yourself instead.

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