In defence of procrastination

It’s taken me a while to get around to writing this piece. I’m not even sure I should be doing it now: I’ve got so many other more important things to do. The truth, however, is that this deadline is approaching and the editor’s eyes are glinting red with malice. To be completely honest, I love the adrenalin rush and buckling down to this piece is the most satisfying justification I can think of for putting off the “more important things” for another day. Yesterday, rest assured, I did some even less important things to put off this task and I felt equally good about that too. I am a proud of my procrastination – paradoxically, it has become my way of getting things done and convincing myself that I run a highly effective operation.

All procrastinators put off until tomorrow what they can do today. They have always done, usually repeatedly and at great length. It is highly appropriate that debate around the subject of procrastination should have dawdled along for centuries. No less than Mark Twain placed himself firmly in the military wing of the Procrastination movement when he observed that people should: “never put off until tomorrow what [they] can do the day after tomorrow”.

All procrastinators put things off until tomorrow, but that does not mean that they are doing nothing today – quite the opposite. Whatever you do, don’t confuse procrastination with laziness, for there plenty of confusion already about what procrastination really means. The word “prevarication” is often used interchangeably with procrastination yet the 2 words have very different meanings. Prevarication really is the DNA of the lazy: it means to “deviate from the truth”. Procrastination, by contrast is the essence of the busy, the busy who put things off both “intentionally and habitually”.

Oh yes. A procrastinator is always busy: he or she just happens to be busy doing lots and lots of “other” things. Procrastination activities that I love include checking my emails, tidying my work area, tying up loose ends, going and helping other people, and my all-time favourite – “getting myself back up to date”. Sometimes of course I can’t even bear to do these things. That of course means is a warning signal that I need a break in order to recharge my batteries. And so I will go to lunch, do some exercise or think “creatively” in some way.

This is in no way wasting time: it is task-displacement. A busy person needs to do all the above activities at some point anyway in order to keep the machine well-oiled and lead a happy and well-balanced life. So procrastinators are not shying away from important work: they are merely heroically “preparing the ground” by eliminating all tactical distractions for the “important” magnum opus to come.

We are living in strange times. The strangest thing of all is the spread of time management “experts” trying to tell us the order in which we should do things. They show us their quadrants and tell us how important the important things are. Their logic is fatally flawed.  Important things often take a lot of painful complex thinking, so it makes more sense to clear away the “clutter” of trivial but urgent tasks to free your mind first. Consider this quote from the highly respected Psychology Today. This esteemed organ notes that “procrastination is not a problem of time management or of planning. Procrastinators are not different in their ability to estimate time”. All procrastinators do that is different is to continually “re-prioritise” the order in which things should be done.

Even so, the tyranny of time pressure has lately taken a sinister turn: I read, in the course of my work, dozens of articles that talk of procrastination as if it were some sort of a disease. Nothing could be further from the truth: procrastination is a fundamental part of human nature. If you don’t believe me, consider your child playing video games to avoid homework or a senior executive checking the cricket scores online. They all avoid tasks that make them feel uncomfortable and show preference for tasks give them immediate pleasure. It makes them feel better.

So let us instead applaud procrastination, not as a haven for the lazy but as a source of mental health and wellbeing.

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