Procrastinating can give you time to think

If all decisions were easy to make, we’d probably save time (for the things we love) and we’d likely have less clutter, too. In that ideal world of easy decision making, we’d know what to do with everything we own and we wouldn’t scratch our heads trying to figure out where to store our things. Gone would be the days of delaying decisions because of uncertainty. And, we’d probably have fewer opportunities to procrastinate.

This sounds like a good thing, doesn’t it? Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, begs to differ. Partnoy, in an interview with Smithsonian.com, said:

…when faced with a decision, we should assess how long we have to make it, and then wait until the last possible moment to do so.

He goes on to say that if/when we do this, we’ll ultimately be happier. I’m not inclined to agree with those sentiments, but he makes an interesting distinction between active procrastination (doing important things you also need to get done) and passive procrastination (like watching TV, playing video games). Basically, he says that it’s not really procrastination if you choose to do something of higher value (like spending time with family, restocking the first aid kits, organizing/clearing pathways) than the project or task you should be currently addressing. While there may be some merit to that, if you’re on a tight deadline because you’ve significantly delayed getting started, you really do have to focus on the tasks at hand.

Though practicing the “art of delay” can help your productivity (like waiting to respond to emails at specific times during the day), when an important and urgent project comes calling, even active procrastination needs to be put on the back burner. But, if you find that you’re cringing at the thought of getting your important tasks done, why not use that delayed time to your benefit? Instead of choosing to focus on trivial things, use that time to think through how you’re feeling, to figure out why you may be feeling stuck. Perhaps you don’t have enough information to get started or are not sure how to begin? Is it possible that you’re putting on your perfectionist hat and waiting for the theoretical right moment? Maybe you really do want to focus on something else that’s of more interest to you.

No matter what the reasons are, if you can figure them out, you’ll be in a better position to start looking for ways to turn things around. You can use that time to come up with a plan.

Work for a short block of time

By simply working for a few minutes at a time, you can chip away at those important, deadline-driven tasks until they’re completed. You might also find that you’re likely to keep working once you get started. But, if your motivation to get things done seems to be underfoot for an extended period of time …

Get help

If you tend to put off working on a specific task, it could be because you don’t value it very much or you just don’t like doing it. This can be an opportunity to call in reinforcements and help can come in a variety of forms. Perhaps you just need to call a friend who can give you a much needed nudge. Or, maybe there’s a colleague who can handle a portion of the project (the part that has you stuck) so you can focus on the rest of it.

Using a pro vs con list can probably help, too. Thinking about all the aspects of waiting until the last minute can give you a different perspective. What are the super cool things about delaying the project? What are the evil consequences? Seeing the good vs evil reasons in black and white just might be the motivation you need to get going (and so can a change of environment).

Rethink your priorities

If you notice that you’re continually putting off things that you need to do on a recurring basis, you may want think about whether or not the projects you accept (or are assigned) are the right fit for your skills and interests. It’s not realistic to think that you can only work on things that you like or are passionate about, but if you find that you’re consistently having negative feelings about particular activities and, as a result, delay working on them, it’s time to identify tasks that interest you even nominally. Where possible, make some adjustments. This may require additional planning and involve others depending on the nature of the tasks (personal vs work).

Though procrastination is generally frowned upon, it can be beneficial if you use that time as an opportunity to think through a plan to get things done. While you may not be able to make changes straight away, you can brainstorm ways to curb the tendency to put things off until the last minute.

2 Comments for “Procrastinating can give you time to think”

  1. posted by Michael Shelton on

    Interesting, learning to procrastinate about procrastinating. Almost always there is one small step we can take to move a project forward. As you mentioned, this often starts an avalanche of momentum for the project. Great, thought provoking piece :)

  2. posted by Larry Feeney on

    Author Parnoy’s quote:

    …when faced with a decision, we should assess how long we have to make it, and then wait until the last possible moment to do so.

    Wow! I was thinking of buying his book to read more and learn. But then I thought: “No, if I wait a couple years I can surely buy it cheaper as a remainder. Actually, maybe a better book will come out in the meantime. Maybe the sequel will be even better?”

    “what do you mean I’m indecisive? I’ve decided to think about it.”

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