The hidden power 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 to be honest, I love the adrenalin rush and buckling down to this piece is a very satisfying feeling. Yesterday, I did some other things to put off this task and I felt equally good about doing that too. We should take comfort in our procrastination – it can actually be a good way of getting things done.

Whatever you do, don’t confuse procrastination with laziness. The word “prevarication” is often mistakenly 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.

A good procrastinator is always busy: he or she just happens to be busy doing lots and lots of “other” things. 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. 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.

So let us instead applaud procrastination, not as a haven for the lazy but as a source of mental health and wellbeing. There’s plenty of academic evidence to show that procrastination is good for you. University of San Diego Professor Frank Partnoy argues that the key to success and happiness is waiting for the last possible moment to make a decision. In his new book, “Wait: the art and science of delay”, he claims that when faced with the decision, we should assess how long we have to make it and then wait until the last possible moment to do so. Should we take his advice on understanding and managing this delay, he says, we will live far happier lives.

It is certainly true in our information-rich world that everyone has so many things to look at and choose from. However, this also means that there has never been a better time to procrastinate. Information rich also means that far from wallowing through social media sites with no purpose in mind, every visit is now an “opportunity” for a procrastinator to research and share ideas.

At all levels, therefore, procrastination should be not frowned upon but admired. The question should not be whether we are procrastinating, or whether that is good or bad, but whether we are procrastinating effectively.

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