October 2014

Procrastination and Planning

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Sometimes, procrastination pays off. This would seem to go against popular wisdom—it feels like we always hear that procrastination is a negative thing. But it turns out that, some of the time, that’s not true.

There are actually a number of ways to define “procrastinate.” Let’s consider a definition from Merriam-Webster: “to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done.” A key word in that definition is “should.” Who determines what “should” be done and when? Exactly how is it determined when something “should” be done?

Before we go any further, let’s acknowledge that there are situations in which procrastination is clearly problematic. In certain situations, there’s no question that action needs to be taken promptly and putting it off can lead to harmful, long-term consequences; and there are other situations in which procrastination can cause problems for ourselves and others—say, when an important deadline looms or we have promised someone else we would perform an action by a specific time. But there are numerous other cases in which procrastination isn’t problematic and may even be beneficial.

“To Do” lists and procrastination

Putting something on a “To Do” list for today or this week doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s a genuine urgency with respect to getting it done. Writing down a task on a list or calendar might remind us that eventually we would like to get to this item, but it might not be a pressing matter. Say we reach the end of a week and there are several things on our “To Do” list that we haven’t gotten around to yet. If there is no true urgency with regard to those tasks, it might be that there were truly sensible reasons for putting those things off. Perhaps unexpected problems arose that needed to be dealt with that week, or we put too many tasks on our list to begin with, or we became too tired to finish everything and really needed to rest. Having flexibility regarding our plans and schedules can be very beneficial. This brings to mind a quote from Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.” If something can really be done “day after tomorrow just as well,” there might not be a genuine urgency associated with that task today.

Different timetables

Another interesting aspect of procrastination involves timetables and patience. Someone else might think that we’re procrastinating because we’re not following their timetable for getting something done. In some cases, this might reflect a difference in personalities and styles. A person who does something as soon as possible, and who expects others to do so, might be impatient. Such a person might not want to have uncertainty about a decision or action hanging over them. In contrast, putting something off can on some occasions reflect patience and a willingness to live with uncertainty for a while. So what one individual might label as someone else’s “procrastination” might simply be a situation in which that someone else has more patience or more of an ability to tolerate uncertainty. We could say that, sometimes, procrastination is in the eye of the beholder.

Creative projects

Though sometimes we procrastinate with respect to unpleasant chores, at other times we put off working on creative projects that we are very much interested in. We might put off creative projects because of fear of failure; if we don’t try, then we don’t have to risk the possibility of failure. Or we might actually put off creative endeavors because of fear of success; if such a project is a success, our lives might change in challenging ways. But even if we’re quite able to face failure or success, we’re not robots or machines that somehow turn out creative products on command. At times, we just aren’t ready to get started on or to finish a particular creative product. It can take time for the process to play out. We can keep making an effort to set the stage for inspiration, but we can’t be sure when it’s going to show up. In some cases, when we’re procrastinating, we’re respecting the mysterious nature of the creative process.

Unpleasant chores

What about those unpleasant chores that we put off? On occasion, procrastination might in a sense be sending us a message about such a chore. Perhaps it’s something that we could really do less often. Or maybe it’s a chore that another person in our household doesn’t mind doing, and in return for them doing that chore, we can take care of a chore that they’re not fond of. In some situations, we might be in a position to pay a service provider to handle a chore or a set of chores that we keep putting off. If we happen to have a lawn and we keep putting off mowing it, we might find it worthwhile to pay to have the lawn taken care of. So when it comes to chores that we regard as unpleasant, procrastination can, if we let it, nudge us in some circumstances to think “outside the box” in terms of what chores get done by whom and how often.

The art and science of delay

You might be surprised to find out that there’s actually an entire book about procrastination and related matters; it’s called Wait: The Art and Science of Delay and it was written by Frank Partnoy and published last year. In it, the author states, “Sometimes it is good to procrastinate.” In a discussion of an essay by computer programmer Paul Graham, Partnoy writes, “In fact, whatever we are doing, we are by definition not working on everything else.” He goes on to say that “our real challenge is to figure out how to procrastinate well—how to work on something that is more important than the something we are not working on.” This is closely related to the concept of genuine urgency that we touched on earlier. “Something that is more important” right now often is genuinely more urgent than other things we could be doing. 

Ways that procrastination can pay off

We’ve seen how, in some circumstances, procrastination can be beneficial in a number of ways. It can indicate flexibility with regards to plans, in that we’re able to postpone tasks that aren’t truly urgent when that’s appropriate. If someone else thinks that we’re procrastinating, it might be that we’re just following our own timetable, and perhaps we’re exhibiting more patience than they would in that situation. We might, when we procrastinate with regard to some projects that involve inspiration, be allowing the creative process to unfold, instead of rigidly trying to force it. With regard to chores that we view as unpleasant, procrastination might nudge us to realize that it could be reasonable and feasible to do them less often or to possibly find a way for someone else to handle the chores (by trading off for chores we find less onerous or by paying a service provider). But are there other ways in which procrastination can sometimes pay off?

One good example in which procrastination can pay off involves purchases. When we put off buying something, the price might drop and we can end up paying less. This can especially happen with all kinds of electronics, such as TVs and cell phones. There are also other types of items that may well be cheaper by the time we get around to purchasing them, including clothing and airline tickets.

In another type of scenario, if we don’t take action right away, in some cases, the problem or need might disappear. Or someone else might step in and take care of it, and that could be for the better in various situations. It really can be possible to be in too big of a rush to take care of something.

When we have a complicated decision to make, that’s another type of situation in which we don’t want to be in too big of a rush. We might need plenty of time in which to gather relevant information and then additional time in which to process it. What might look like procrastination to someone else might actually be a careful effort to collect and analyze information.

Limitations to the planning process

Contemplating procrastination can remind us that there are limitations to the planning process. We can have plans for today and this week and this year, but life is going to have surprises for us all along the way. As the lyrics of a John Lennon song tell us, “Life is what happens to you, while you’re busy making other plans.” Plans certainly have their place, but it is often helpful to think of them as tentative and to be willing and able to adjust them, depending on the circumstances.

So, in some situations, there actually can be positive aspects to procrastination. As we noted earlier, procrastination can of course be very problematic in other situations, and we need to be able to distinguish between those two broad types of situations. If procrastination is based in fear, then it’s likely to be a problem that we need to find effective ways to deal with. But when it’s not based in fear, procrastination might just mean that we’re recognizing that something isn’t genuinely urgent. Or perhaps we are experiencing patience in a situation, though someone else thinks that we’re procrastinating. It could be that we’re letting the creative process unfold when we’re procrastinating. We might even get a great bargain as a result of procrastination. And at times when we procrastinate, it could be that we’re just being sensibly flexible with regard to our plans and we’re appreciating their limitations.

-- By Mary Jablonski

See features from the October 2014 issue

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