How to Procrastinate Constructively
There’s been a lot written about procrastination: why we do it, and — more commonly — what we can do about it. While I hope to talk a bit here about what it means when we procrastinate, this is not another article about how to stop procrastinating. Don’t get me wrong — there are times when you need to avoid procrastination and just get things done. But that’s not all the time, and it’s not the main point I am trying to make here.
Instead, consider when procrastination might actually be useful. Sometimes procrastination helps us formulate a better response to a problem or keeps us from making a mistake. How does this work? The key to understanding procrastination lies with determining why we procrastinate and what it means when we do it.
Why We Procrastinate
There are many reasons why someone might procrastinate, all of which I can relate to in one way or another. A big one is aversion to the task you are procrastinating about. If you know it is going to cause you trouble or the task has already caused you distress, you won’t be in a hurry to do or keep doing it.
Case in point, I am a transgender woman and I waited until my mid forties to come out as trans. Why? Not because I didn’t already know I was trans, and not because I couldn’t conceive of transitioning and living as a woman. No, it was more because I knew I would get grief from the moment I came out. The six months leading up to my coming out at work, for example, I was petrified. I knew it was a rather conservative place and that at least some people would have a problem with my transition. And I was right. People who were friendly and talked to me every day now moved to the other side of the hallway and pretended I wasn’t there when I passed by. Because of the response from some people at work and even those in other parts of my life, I don’t regret waiting to come out.
We also might procrastinate because of stress, or pressure. This pressure can be external — such as your boss breathing down your neck to finish a project. Or it can be internal. If you are a perfectionist, then you know you are often the one holding you back because the conditions aren’t quite right.
For the most part, though, all the reasons for procrastination can be summed up in one word: fear. Whether you fear everything won’t be perfect, or that you don’t have enough time, or you’ve already run into reasons to dread the task, it all amounts to being afraid of the outcome.
What It Might Mean When You Procrastinate (or What is Your Fear Trying to Tell You?)
So fear is behind much (or most) of the procrastinating we do. Think about fear for a moment. It’s been around as long as there have been things to be afraid of. Before smaller dinosaurs ran from larger ones, even before big fish chased smaller fish, there was fear. Most psychologists credit the fear response as a self-defense mechanism. A small animal foraging in the forest hears a larger animal. The smaller animal could stick around and take the chance it won’t be eaten, but — more likely — it will give in to the impulse to run away. The smaller animal may never know if the other animal was some dangerous predator, but it is safe regardless.
Fear, then, can be a life saver. And that’s where procrastination comes in. Since it all comes down to fear, you might do well to understand that fear. What are you afraid of? Why? In the case of my transition, I feel I would have been in even more hot water had I not planned it out and done my research. Because I waited, I had time to learn more about what to expect and to gain a better understanding of how my colleagues might respond. I didn’t know who would respond positively and who would be negative, but — because I approached the situation cautiously — I knew there would be a significant amount of people in both camps.
How Can I Use Procrastination to My Advantage?
Procrastination is an embodiment of your fear, and as such, gives you an idea that all is not well with this task you need to do. If you find yourself resisting starting a project, ask yourself what there is to be afraid of. Your subconscious might know more than you, and there could be a reason you are resisting.
This early warning system can be advantageous for you. If nothing else, it might make you stop and take stock of the situation. Perhaps it will save you from running headlong into something without considering the consequences.
As a writer, I know I often procrastinate when I don’t know how to get started or where to go after I do. Now that I’ve created the first scene, what happens next? Often, setting my writing aside for a bit will help me think of something. I wasn’t exactly sure what this story would look like several days ago when I first wrote down the idea and the main points, but after letting myself think about it in my spare time, I was able to come up with more ideas and better support for them than I would have a few days ago.
I mentioned pressure earlier as a cause of procrastination, but it can also be useful. Some people thrive under pressure and only do their best work when they are minutes from deadline. I know because that fits me to a T. The best papers I wrote in college were the ones I wrote in three hours the night before. So far, some of my most successful stories on Medium have been those I dashed off in less than an hour and then hit “Publish” right away.
If you are a perfectionist, procrastination might help you ensure you do not release a project until it is completely ready. Of course, it is possible to spend too much time perfecting something. That brings us to some caveats about procrastination.
When Is It Not OK to Procrastinate?
Some say it’s never OK to procrastinate, but I’m not one of them. It is true, though, that there are times when procrastination can be dangerous. If something is vitally important (your job is on the line), if you are delaying fulfilling a promise, if the cost of not doing something on time is unacceptable, you should do everything you can to avoid procrastination. If, as with some perfectionists, there is a chance you will never finish if you don’t nip the procrastination in the bud, then you should definitely do everything in your power to not procrastinate.
I will cover techniques for avoiding procrastination in another article. It is true that most of us (myself included) procrastinate far too much. Notice that I have not said that all procrastination is a good thing, nor that anyone should procrastinate unchecked. When it comes to productive procrastination, a little goes a long way.
Procrastination: Your New Superpower
Ok, so superpower is overstating things a bit. A lot, probably. Still, procrastination can be an awesome creative force in your life. It sounds counter-intuitive, and, as I’ve said, it is not always a force for good, but sometimes it can give you the boost you need. Although unlikely (and should be used sparingly), it is a tool that can lead you to success.
When have you procrastinated productively? Share your story in the comments below.