In June 2018, I sat for the Chartered Financial Analyst Level 2 exam. As I sat in a large exhibition hall among budding financial professionals, I realized I had no idea why I spent the last ten months of my life studying for this exam. I did not want to do anything that needed a CFA designation and I doubt I ever would.
When our family therapist used the term “productive procrastination” during one of our sessions, it immediately all made sense. This whole time I was using exams, cleaning and other “productive” activities merely as procrastination from more pressing things that I did not want to do. Namely, finding a fulfilling career or dealing with family stress.
Following this, I read up more about the differences between avoidance and distraction. Distraction is finding healthy, time-limited ways to take a break before returning to thoughts or activities that are causing distress. Avoidance is defined by unhealthy and untimed activities where there is really no intention of getting back to what is causing the distress.
Productive procrastination falls into the avoidance bucket. By sitting for the CFA, I used that big undertaking as a way to avoid the more significant issue of finding a career path. By sorting my son’s Legos by color and size, I avoided dealing with the anxiety that comes with parenting. Productive procrastination may seem amazing because you’re being productive, but it doesn’t allow you to advance your values in any way. With the CFA, it just gave me a new form of stress I might otherwise not have had.
So how do you get out of the productive procrastination trap? I’ve come up with a straightforward strategy for tackling avoidance disguised as productivity.
Step One: Pause. First, just pause and ask yourself, why am I doing this? Why am I grinding questions on derivatives at midnight on a Saturday? Why am I trying to decide whether or not the yellow and green Legos should be in separate containers? If you don’t have a good answer to that question, this might be a red flag you should not be doing it.
Step Two: Distract. Find a healthy and time-limited distraction. It’ll depend on your situation, but in my case of sitting for the CFA exam, I should have stopped studying and gone to read a good book or called a friend. I could have played with Legos with my son instead of sorting them obsessively. A recent distraction I’ve fallen in love with is doing craft miniature kits. The only caveat is not to let whatever activity you engage in turn into avoidance. The last thing you need is to be avoiding the thing that you are using to avoid some underlying issue.
Step Three: Reflect. After you have had this healthy distraction, you move to the hard part – reflection. Ask yourself the "Why?" question again. Ask yourself if what you are doing is advancing your values. If at this point still don’t have a good answer, then move onto step four.
Step Four: Drop. This is the hardest step. While reflecting, you asked yourself some questions. In this final step, you have to take action. Dropping involves quitting the productive avoidance activity you got yourself stuck into. It can be easy to drop an activity if it’s something like cleaning obsessively or working on some craft project that’s taken on a life of its own. Dropping is a lot harder when it’s something you’ve sunk a lot of time, money and effort into. In that case, remind yourself of the sunk cost fallacy and spend more time reflecting on your values: is what you’re doing in or out of line with your values? This could also be a good time to call up some emotional supporters who can give you a perspective on the situation and help you drop this avoidance.
During the CFA study days, I really tried hard to remind myself of the sunk cost fallacy. But, I convinced myself that there was too much money, time and effort on the line and I sat for the test anyway. I wish I had spent more time going through these four steps, but I did not. As a result, I got a costly lesson in what was essentially unproductive productivity.
So next time you find yourself doing something that is probably avoidance disguising itself as productivity do these four things: pause, find a healthy distraction, reflect and finally drop it and get back to living in line with your values.