Why Procrastination Is Not Always a Bad Thing
Procrastination is often treated as a bad thing, something to be overcome or cured. But procrastination has a bright side. For example, when you procrastinate, you avoid the discomfort caused by doing something you’d rather not do. You can occupy yourself doing things you genuinely enjoy. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, the thing you’re procrastinating about may go away or be taken care of by someone else.
According to some scientists, there are two kinds of procrastination: Active procrastination is a conscious process of putting off something you know you need to do but in the meantime doing something more valuable. Passive procrastination entails pretty much sitting around, couch-potato-like, doing not much of anything.
Programmer and writer Paul Graham avoids this either-or view by thinking in terms of good and bad procrastination. He classifies three types of procrastination, based on what you’re doing instead of the thing you’re putting off. Are you doing nothing, something less important, or something more important?
Graham views this last kind, doing something more important, as good procrastination. I like this more nuanced view, though let’s face it: It’s easy to convince yourself that the thing you’re doing is more important than the thing you’re delaying. When I face a must-do task that I don’t want to deal with, I can easily convince myself that it’s more important to mow the lawn first—or paint the entire house.
That’s where philosophy professor John Perry’s notion of structured procrastination comes in. In Perry’s view, procrastinators can be motivated to do difficult tasks as long as these tasks are a way of avoiding doing something more important. Structured procrastination is a way to exploit putting off what you don’t want to do by focusing on tasks that you’ve identified as worthwhile, even if not as urgent or important as the ones you’re avoiding. By keeping busy with these somewhat less important tasks, you can accomplish a lot. You can even be seen as someone who gets a lot done (especially if people don’t realize it’s merely a brilliant avoidance strategy).
Whether you follow this approach or not, don’t beat yourself up for procrastinating. Alexander Kjerulf, a speaker and consultant about happiness at work, suggests that if you’re going to procrastinate, do it guilt-free; avoid spending all that time obsessing about the thing you should be doing but aren’t. And do it 100 percent—that is, throw yourself fully into the thing you are doing.
Kjerulf also suggests that you ask yourself why you procrastinate. Good idea. I’ll do it tomorrow.