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Purposeful Procrastination: How Putting Things Off Can Save Your Life

My roommate is notorious for making poor decisions, but the worst was the time he impulsively decided to rescue a bat from an attacking swarm of bees, only to end up with a painful series of rabies shots and a decapitated bat.

Maybe that’s a dramatic example, but for many of us, impulse control is a big problem. For example, maybe you binge eat when you’re upset. A little comfort food here and there can be a good thing, but once you become unhappy with the behavior and its effect on your life, it’s time to make a change.

Luckily, an unlikely hero can save the day– procrastination. It’s is one of the best tools to help us minimize the damage that impulsive actions can cause. If you get upset and reach for the ice cream, telling yourself that you will wait one hour before digging in is much more effective than saying, “No, I can’t ever do that again!” It takes a lot less willpower to wait an hour than to wait forever. Once you’ve taken a shower or read a book, the urge will probably pass. If it doesn’t, you can wait another hour, or have a more reasonable portion of your favorite ice cream.

Maybe you’re trying to quit smoking. You reach for another cigarette, but instead of lighting it up you tell yourself to wait another twenty minutes. When the twenty minutes is up, you feel so proud of yourself that you want to wait another twenty. This way, you can quickly trim down the number of cigarettes you smoke in a day. It also works for those stressful days after you’ve quit when you really want a smoke– waiting a day or even an hour can help you remember why you quit in the first place, and keep you motivated to maintain your streak.

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You’re already great at procrastinating, so you put it to work for you. Genius, right?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a specific name for this strategy, (though one person told me they refer to it as “putting your urge on the shelf”) but it has its roots in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. It’s related to a lot of other skills, like mindfulness and distraction, which are worth cultivating if you’re going to be the best version of you.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, or DBT, was invented by Marsha Linehan to help patients with Borderline Personality Disorder keep self-destructive urges at bay in order to preserve their relationships. People with BPD and similar mental illnesses might have habits like self-harming or purposely creating problems with friends and lovers. Waiting until after dinner to self-harm or tomorrow to break up a relationship will often prevent the action altogether. Self-destruction is not a logical impulse, and once we get through the initial urge we remember that we don’t want to cause ourselves pain or harm.

Using procrastination as a self-help strategy combines the tools of mindfulness and distraction in a way that’s easy on impulsive brains.

Mindfulness is what we’re trying to develop when we meditate. It’s the ability to pay attention to ourselves and our environment and make purposeful choices, rather than reacting automatically. When we get good at it, it allows us to make decisions like Robert Downey Jr. does as Sherlock Holmes– we can slow down and make a plan in the moment that will be best for us.

Distraction is a tried-and-true strategy for dealing with unhealthy impulses, but sometimes it can become unhealthy itself, as when people develop addictions to video games or other engrossing activities to avoid dealing with tough issues. When you procrastinate mindfully, you put a limit on the behavior you’re trying to avoid without letting your chosen distraction run amok. All you’re doing is pressing the “pause” button long enough to remember what you really want.

How do you put procrastination to work for you?

In a calm moment, pick one or two negative behaviors that you do impulsively. The next time the behavior pops up, make it a point to procrastinate. Set a reasonable time limit (an hour for tiny things and days or weeks for actions that will affect you deeply) and do something else instead. Then come back and consider the action from a logical point of view, and decide what behavior is really best for you.

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