How to get things done without doing them

Updated 17/11/2021

I am a master procrastinator. From picking the perfect background music for a ‘productive’ work session to going down the rabbit hole of productivity videos on youtube, ending up watching something to do with Buddhist meditation hours later, I can be very inventive in finding ways not to do something.

I am not lazy

It is not that I am lazy. I am just highly effective in getting through lots of work or learning that I don’t need to do right now. If you are aware of the various psychology systems that help you to discover more about your personality, like Myers -Briggs or Discovery Insights, then I am ENTP or Fiery Red (with a tint of orange). I gather information constantly. I devour books, blog posts, newspaper articles, Wikipedia entries, and watch educational videos on youtube, often at the expense of the work that I know I should be doing. If learning were the only important goal, if the theoretical were the peak of achievement, then I would be winning. Unfortunately, for me, the world is built on the application of theory. If you can’t see it, hear it, feel it or even smell it, it hasn’t happened.

Overcoming procrastination

For the master procrastinator, it is not that we don’t understand the need to get things done. I have devoted my work life to improving productivity. I am painfully aware of the issues that procrastinators like me face in getting things done, and I am determined to find a way to overcome them. Neither is it the case that I am a low achiever. I have a PhD in Computational Chemistry, a Masters Degree before that in Chemistry with Pharmacology, did an extra A-level subject from most people in my school, apart from a Saturday job, I have only ever worked for myself, and I now employ people. I say all this, not to brag about achievements, but to reassure fellow procrastinators out there, that we can do things, that we aren’t lazy. The job that I do now is nothing to do with the PhD that I spent years to earn. I took the learning of something to the extremes of a PhD and then went on to the next thing. I said that I like learning things for the sole purpose of the gaining of knowledge. Now, this isn’t wholly true. You cannot ignore the transferable skills that you learn during the academic undertaking of a PhD. I also spent much time improving ways to get things done without actually having to do them.

Getting things done without doing them

My epiphany came when I realised the key to all of this was getting things done without me doing them. I am an ideas person. I am a ‘why’ and ‘how’ person, in the language of Simon Sinek, not a what person. I didn’t need to become a ‘what’ person, I need to use my ‘why’ and ‘how’ skills to get ‘what’ done. Instead of tackling the work that needs completing, which, to me, is often dull and uninspiring, I find a proxy task that allows me to become more productive and get the mundane done at the same time. I trick myself into doing the work that I needed to, by doing something completely different.

Quantum mechanics

For example, during my PhD, I was finding methods of using quantum mechanics calculations (don’t worry, stay with me, we will get there) to predict the shapes of large molecules. These structures had the potential to be molecular sieves based on their 3D-shape. I was already finding a way of getting things done without doing them – the usual process for this involves finding a way to synthesise the compound, making a perfect sample (correct size, purity, etc.) and then putting the sample into an x-ray crystallography machine, which produces output you can interpret into the 3D structure. As you may have guessed by now, I didn’t want to be doing all that. It sounded like much repetitive work. So, what I was trying to do was to use computer programs to create the structure, by using quantum mechanics calculations, for known structures. I then had to compare the structure that I came up with to the one that someone had done the synthesis and x-ray crystallography on, already. Once I had got a method that produced a structure that matched the known structures of crystals, it could be used to predict the structures of novel compounds.

Automating measurement

Now, checking that the 3D-shape of my calculation matched that of the known crystal structure was also a dull process. One which involved measuring the distances between pairs, angles between triplets, and dihedral angles between quartets, of atoms. Moreover, there were many atoms. These were massive structures = tedious. So, as you may have figured, I didn’t sit there for very long making these measurements by hand. I was determined to find a way not to do this tedious work, so, I started to read. I ended up at a 1987 article in the Journal of the Optical Society of America that was something to do with robotics, and an algorithm that compared the similarity of the 3D-shape of two geometries. So, I took this algorithm and wrote a computer program that could compare structures in seconds, rather than minutes, and never compared a structure by hand again. In the end, my final PhD thesis was titled, “High-throughput computational chemistry of macromolecules”. Specifically, it was about getting lots of stuff done.

Procrastination as motivation

How does this apply to the world of work and productivity you may ask. Well, the takeaway from this story is that procrastination can be a motivator. If you don’t want to do something, then there can be many reasons why, but a big one will be that it is uninteresting. For master procrastinators, for ENTP personalities, boring is the worst thing ever. If you don’t want to do it because it is boring, then can you find a way to get it done without doing it at all? You have some options here, and some of them you may already take advantage of, especially if you are a team leader, manager or entrepreneur.

Get someone else to do it

Firstly, hire someone else to do it. You can have your own employee who can do the ‘what’ to your ‘why’ and ‘how’. If you don’t want to hire a full-time staff member, then you can get a contractor for a specified project. Finally, you can outsource the entire project to an external provider and pay for the result.

Automate it

Alternatively, as I mentioned earlier, I have devoted my work life to improving productivity. Anything that can be automated should be automated, and that is what I always set out to do. If you can describe a process entirely, then there will be a way to get it done without doing it yourself. Automation is now a buzzword, but it is nothing new. The production of everything from your packet of crisps to your new Audi has been automated. The only difference now is that it is entering the world of office work, and not a moment too late for us procrastinators. Answering enquiries, allocating resources, writing reports, and making decisions are just some of the tasks that you can get done without having to do them yourself. So, while we spend hours learning about using diet, exercise, meditation, visualisation, Pomodoro, Lock-in, standing desks, office plants, mindset, measurement, the Pareto principle; while we have the entire contents of Google, Youtube and Wikipedia to get through (so much knowledge); we can still get things done.

Embrace your procrastination

I am a master procrastinator, but we are the ones that find ways to change the world. We find ways to make life easier. We find ways not to do things, and in doing so, we get more done. Get to understand your procrastination urge. It is daring you not to conform. It is inviting you not to be a robot. It is not a hindrance, instead, it is freeing you to think differently. It is giving you the push to be unreasonable. Seek answers in the knowledge that you horde. Smash ideas together. Split the atom of invention to release the energy of innovation.

The unreasonable man makes progress

“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.” ― George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman SwiftCase helps thriving businesses, swamped by growing demand, automate and organise, to focus on what matters — loved by 1000s of users across Insurance, Finance, Legal, Service & Contractor sectors.
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