When I learned about positive procrastination, it blew my mind.
I first read about it in a German book whose title roughly translates to: “How to get things done without the slightest bit of self-discipline.” Refreshingly, the writing lacked any of the self-importance so common to books by self-help gurus.
Even though the book’s authors Sascha Lobo and Kathrin Passing are highly accomplished, they proudly talked about their procrastination habit. And they encouraged me, the reader, to befriend procrastination. Or to not befriend it.
Or do it tomorrow.
It was the type of irreverent productivity advice you wouldn’t expect from not just one but two Germans which of course made it that much better. (I shared the book with an American friend of mine. She hated it.)
What are the positive effects of procrastination?
One of the things that I still remember from this book I read over a decade ago is the idea that procrastination can be positive. Here’s how:
1. Procrastination helps people use their energy elsewhere
If people procrastinate, they generally don’t just stare at the wall. Instead of going to the task they think they should do, their energy goes elsewhere.
For instance, John Perry, professor emeritus at Stanford University, asked himself why he was known as a productive person despite being a procrastinator. He realized it was because he used his procrastination to do other tasks instead, something he calls “structured procrastination”:
“Structured procrastination means you don’t waste your time. When you’re avoiding another task, you do something else instead.”
Sometimes, that is cleaning up the house or your desk. Other times, you’re working on a different project. And then there are the times when you’re doing something that’s helpful for the bigger whole. For instance, without people procrastinating by sharing their knowledge, Wikipedia would have way fewer entries.
2. Procrastination can fuel creativity
Procrastination can also make you more creative.
Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the Wharton School, wrote about an experiment his former student Jihae Shin conducted. Shin, who is now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, asked people to come up with new business ideas which were then evaluated by independent raters. While some were randomly assigned to start right away, others got to Minesweeper or Solitaire for 5 minutes.
“When people played games before being told about the task, there was no increase in creativity. It was only when they first learned about the task and then put it off that they considered more novel ideas. It turned out that procrastination encouraged divergent thinking.”
3. Procrastination can make tasks disappear
Sometimes, tasks simply disappear if you keep on procrastinating. Take, for instance, the university professor whose student reaches out to her with an inane question. If the professor doesn’t answer right away, the student might find the answer to his questions himself.
I recently had this experience in the context of a group communication. One of the people had written something that I thought wasn’t supportive of the rest of us. I wanted to express my disagreement but after a day of travel, I felt very tired. By the time I felt recharged enough to draft a reply, someone else had already spoken up and all I had to do was to agree with their comment.
4. Procrastination can help you react better
Related to the previous point, procrastination can often help you react better. For instance, when somebody did something that upset you and you react right away, your response might primarily come from anger.
While that’s sometimes appropriate, in professional relationships it can often lead to negative consequences. By taking some time away to consider how you want to react to an affront, you can be more strategic in your response. Whenever I get wound up about something important, I try to sleep on it and also ask other people for advice before reacting.
5. Procrastination can help you get things done more quickly (when you have a deadline)
When you have a deadline for doing something, procrastination can help you complete the task more quickly. By not working on a project until you really, really have to, you will often make more efficient use of your time. As Parkinson’s law puts it: “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
I recently witnessed this in one of my coaching clients who had to complete a paper by a specific deadline. Just a few days before the deadline, the university gave him a few more weeks for its completion. Instead of finishing the paper by the original deadline, my client’s first response was to spend much more time on a paper that was already pretty good.
The people who decided to postpone the deadline probably thought they were being generous by giving their university students extra time. Instead, they made it harder for them to be efficient.
That having excess time can make people more inefficient isn’t just my personal observation. There’s research supporting it. For instance, in a research project from the 1960s, subjects had either 5 or 15 minutes to complete a task that could be completed in 5 minutes. The researchers found that those
“allowed excess time spent a significantly greater amount of time actually working on the task than those allowed minimum time.”
Research from 1999 came to similar conclusions. With tasks where performance could be rated objectively, they also found that “dalliance did not improve task performance.”
How to be a positive procrastinator
If the above benefits have inspired you to procrastinate more, pause for a second.
Not all procrastination is created equally. A useful and scientifically researched distinction is between active (adaptive) and passive (maladaptive) procrastination. Only the first one is an example of positive procrastination.
The benefits of active procrastination
While passive procrastinators often don’t get things done in time, their active counterparts do much, much better. A study concluded that active procrastination
“ can be an adaptive and productive coping style. It is associated with dependable temperament, well-developed character, and high emotional intelligence and predicts meeting personal goals.”
But what exactly is active procrastination and how can you use it? Unlike passive procrastinators, active ones deliberately delay tasks.
Let’s say two people have to hand in an application by a deadline that’s 3 weeks away.
Passive procrastination = negative procrastination
Passive Petra will try to get started, then get distracted by a shiny object, and finally decide to do something more enjoyable. Her failure to follow through on what she wants to do lowers her self-esteem. Eventually, the deadline approaches and she crams to get it done.
Passive Petra doesn’t enjoy this process at all and she is unhappy with her final result.
Active procrastination = positive procrastination
Active Agnes will consider the time she has available and realize that she only needs 3 days (instead of the 3 weeks) to complete the application. She decides to start working on this 72 hours before the deadline and thus avoids Parkinson’s Law.
Active Agnes hands in the application in time and feels proud of getting it done under pressure. She has found a good rhythm for working on this task.
Active procrastinators like Agnes have 4 things in common: a preference for time pressure, the ability to make an intentional decision to put off tasks, the capacity to meet deadlines, and higher satisfaction in the outcome when they work under pressure.
While procrastination has many unacknowledged benefits, how you procrastinate matters. The most effective way is by making a conscious decision to delay and to then use the pressure of a deadline to your advantage. Just make sure it's not too much pressure as that can also be detrimental to your productivity.
Consciously delaying things is a strategy I’ve used since I first read about positive procrastination and I can highly recommend it!
After all, to reference Mark Twain: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done day after tomorrow just as well.”
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