We usually think of procrastination as the devil’s voice, whispering in our ear. But is it possible that putting things off has benefits, too?
“I’ll start studying for my exams after I finish watching this YouTube clip of a baby biting his brother’s finger…or maybe after I read this bit of juicy celebrity gossip…”
Sound familiar? That’s right; it’s the comforting voice of procrastination.
You drink a cup of coffee, check your email, gaze outside for a few minutes doing what you like to call “brainstorming,” check your email once more and before you know it, two hours have passed and you haven’t even put one word down on the page.
Procrastination isn’t usually seen as a good thing, and a quick Google search for the word will bring up thousands of hits on how to beat procrastination and get on with the more important things in life.
But there is a positive side to procrastination that is less often discussed—namely, creative procrastination. Sounds great, right? Now you can write off all that time you spent playing video games or shopping online as “creativeness”!
Well… not exactly. John Cleese, quoting research by academic Donald McKinnon, says that most creative professionals tend to play around with a difficult problem before they try to resolve it. Ultimately, this makes their solution more creative than most, because they’ve had that much more time to mull over it.
In a recent interview with Smithsonian Mag, Frank Partnoy, author of the book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, discusses how procrastinating helped him make his way through college, law school and even succeed at his academic career.
His new book discusses how putting things off can help us make better decisions and even improve the quality of our lives.
Of course, like it or not, you’re going to have to buckle down at some point and study for your finals, write that blog post or reach out to that new contact. But sometimes your mind might just need a break to eventually be productive again.
Good procrastination vs. bad procrastination
So where do you draw the line between creative procrastination and negative procrastination?
According to some scientists, there are two main types of procrastination: passive procrastination and active procrastination.
Passive procrastination is the kind we’re most familiar with, when you put something off but don’t replace it with a useful task. During active procrastinating, however, you’re fully aware that there’s something you should be doing, but you’ve decided that what you’re doing instead is more important and will pay off in the long run.
Active procrastinators tend to delay things because they work well under pressure and are motivated by the fact that a deadline is coming up. (Although obviously this tactic can only work if you have a good sense of how long a task will take to complete.) Active procrastinators have lower levels of stress and more belief in their own ability to succeed than passive procrastinators.
Clearly, the main difference between the two groups of procrastinators is that one eventually gets the task done (and possibly even a few other tasks along the way) while the other puts it off, worries about it and often ends up not finishing at all.
When procrastinating points to something bigger
And here’s one more benefit of procrastination: it might give you insight into why you’re avoiding what you’re avoiding.
Take a minute to think about why you’re putting something off. Perhaps the reason you can’t seem to focus on your textbook is because it’s just not the right subject for you, even if you initially thought it was. Or maybe you’re stuck on that chapter you’re writing because your idea isn’t good enough. Or, if you aren’t replying to that client’s email, there’s a good chance that subconsciously you don’t want their business.
Sometimes your procrastination is telling you something important, and you might benefit from taking the opportunity to think it over.
So if you’re a chronic procrastinator, figure out how to make this seemingly negative attribute work for you instead of fretting about how much you aren’t getting done as you check your email for the seventeenth time.
And with that, I’m off for another coffee and brainstorming session before my next deadline…
Tess Pajaron is part of the team behind Open Colleges. She also has a background in business administration and management, having worked for their family-owned business for nine years.