The Pros of Prolonging
Procrastination is rarely thought of as a positive thing. Companies don’t hand out plaques for “Procrastinator of the Month.” When someone admits to procrastinating, it’s usually seen as a confession, not a bragging point.
There is no shortage of articles discussing how terrible procrastination is for you, your career, and your health, accompanied by endless advice on how to stop doing it.
However, studies suggest that procrastination may actually be hereditary, making it something that we all need to learn to work with.
That is not to say we endorse procrastination. We all need to be proactive about meeting deadlines, managing our time well, and producing top-notch work, no matter what our brains would rather be doing. Sometimes, however, procrastination is just a part of life.
So, whether you are a procrastinator, or frustrated with one, read on to find the value in this often misunderstood behavior.
Tim Urban’s entertaining Ted Talk on the fine art of procrastination.
What is Procrastination?
Strictly speaking, procrastination is the act of deferring action, or delaying a task for another day or time. It’s been seen as a problem for a while. The quote “Do not put off until tomorrow what can be done today,” is attributed to the Greek poet Hesiod, who would have written it more than 2500 years ago.
I’m sure Hesiod was a smart fellow, but just because it can be done today, doesn’t mean it should be done today.
Managing delay is an important tool for human beings.
– Frank Partnoy
Why Do People Procrastinate?
People procrastinate for a variety of reasons. Some neuroscience suggests that procrastination may be a result of “subtle executive dysfunction of the brain.” But there are more commonly accepted reasons to which we can all relate: lack of skills, fear of failure, and an absence of interest, to name a few.
But these are not the only reasons people put things off. Some highly successful people thrive on procrastinating, subconsciously using it to increase the quality of their work.
Procrastination Can Be Good
Da Vinci took 16 years to finish the Mona Lisa, arguably the most famous painting in the world. In that time, he absorbed 16 years’ worth of new knowledge, some of which surely influenced the final product.
Who knows? That famous mysterious smile may have originally been a toothy grin if da Vinci hadn’t taken his time.
With a looming deadline, and a surprise client visit, Frank Lloyd Wright drafted the plans for Fallingwater in two hours. He’d been working on it mentally for months. It is considered his most famous work.
Procrastination can fuel ingenuity. During the time between when a task is assigned and when it is due, your subconscious is working on it. When it comes time to spring into action, you’ve had a lot of time to think about how you want to handle the job (whether or not you are consciously aware), which can lead to greater innovation.
Procrastination can increase efficiency. If you care about the quality of your work, but also habitually leave projects to the last minute, chances are you need to come up with some pretty clever ways to get things done at the eleventh hour. We’ve all heard the idiom, “necessity is the mother of invention.” A skilled procrastinator puts that wisdom to good use.
Procrastination can also lead to better communication. Have you ever received an email response right away, followed by a follow-up to that response two minutes later, and then a follow-up to that follow-up?
Taking pause before you respond can help you craft more well-thought-out feedback. Frank Partnoy, University of San Diego professor and author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, sees waiting as an opportunity. He even advocates completing tasks at the last minute to allow your mind time to work on the response while you are doing other work.
So, yes, procrastination can be a good thing. The key to successfully putting things off, however, is in the type of procrastination you practice.
Types of Procrastination
Active procrastinators are essentially as productive as non-procrastinators. They deliberately put off tasks because they thrive under pressure, and are completing less daunting tasks in the meantime. The active procrastinator has the double benefit of tackling his to-do list, while allowing new ideas to simmer. If you are a die-hard procrastinator, try to adopt this method of completing smaller items on your to do list, to increase your productivity while still putting things off.
This is the type of procrastination your mother warned you about. You have a long to do list, but instead of tackling any of the items (even the easy ones), you walk around the office looking for leftover birthday cake, and shooting the breeze at every water-cooler in the building. The passive procrastinator puts off his projects for a variety of reasons: anxiety, indecision, lack of instant gratification or skills. Not only is the passive procrastinator delaying major tasks, he isn’t getting any minor tasks done either.
How Do I Know if My Procrastination is a Problem?
If you are a chronic procrastinator, I hope you’re feeling a little bit better about it by now. It might just be part of your disposition.
If you are one who is quick to respond, take a page from the active procrastinator’s playbook, and leave some of that non-pressing work for later. If you’re a passive procrastinator, try to modify your behavior by creating a to-do list of small undertakings that are easy to complete. This may help motivate you to complete that larger, more daunting project by the deadline.
If you’re still not sure whether or not your procrastination is under control, consider the following:
Are you missing deadlines?
If you habitually finish projects late, take a look at how you are managing your time and adjust accordingly. You may have a genetic predisposition for procrastination, but that doesn’t give you license to not follow through on your commitments.
Is your work suffering?
If you are hitting your deadlines, but your work is not up to par, it’s time to reevaluate your time management.
Is your procrastination affecting others?
If your delays start to delay your colleagues’ work, it’s time to reevaluate your system. Procrastination only works as a tool when it has been tamed. And deadlines are still deadlines. Don’t be the first domino.
Never put off till tomorrow, what you can do day after tomorrow just as well.
By identifying the ways in which your procrastination is a problem, you can work on adopting the behavior patterns of an active procrastinator, and integrating other solutions that convert your procrastination from a detriment to a benefit.
Take charge of your tendency to procrastinate, and learn how to make it work for you. And, if you have a procrastinator in your life, share this post with them today. I’m sure they’ll get around to reading it eventually.