Many time management experts label procrastination in strictly negative terms such as “the thief of time.” But is procrastination always such a negative experience? Is there a positive side to procrastination, one that may even encourage you to procrastinate more often?
What if you could see procrastination from a more empowering perspective? What if you could even fall in love with procrastination?
The Anti-Procrastination Brigade
One of the reasons procrastination gets such a bad rap is because it’s generally perceived as contrary to corporate agendas, which rely heavily on time-is-of-the-essence execution driven by command and control authority to hit financial targets. When employees procrastinate on key projects and tasks, it can cause delays that hurt the corporate bottom line.
Managers are typically held accountable for these delays. Managerial pay is frequently linked to the corporate agenda, so procrastination issues with team members can personally impact a manager’s income. This incentivizes managers to turn procrastination into an enemy and to do what they can to squash it.
Consequently, you’ll commonly find that anti-procrastination books are written by current or former corporate managers. I’ve read many books on this topic, and I have a hard time recalling one that wasn’t written by someone with management experience.
Since I’ve managed a team in the past as well, I’ve also witnessed the effect of procrastination on team results, so it should come as no surprise that I too have been a member of the anti-procrastination brigade. One of my earliest article hits was Overcoming Procrastination. I wrote the original version of that article in 2001 while running Dexterity Software, three years before I started blogging, and for most of the intervening years, it has held a top position in search engines.
Anti-procrastination, however, is merely a perspective — a lens through which we can view reality. In this article, I’d like to offer you a different perspective to consider. Instead of favoring what’s best for the manager, the team, or the company, let’s consider what’s actually best for the individual.
What Do You Do When You Procrastinate?
When you’re coming upon a deadline, and you seem to be putting off what “needs” to be done, what are you doing instead?
Some people tend to freeze in this situation, doing virtually nothing. They get some impulses for things they’d rather be doing, but then they guilt themselves out of acting on them.
However, if you were to set that guilt aside and flow with those impulses, what would you end up doing instead? And what might be the long-term consequences?
Perhaps the consequences of procrastination are not as negative as they initially seem. The pressure of the moment has a way of distorting your perspective, just as physical pressure can distort a glass lens.
When I was in high school, I used to procrastinate heavily on certain school assignments, almost always waiting till the night before the due date to begin working on them. Most often I’d procrastinate on writing essays and doing various reading assignments. I generally found them boring and tedious. Looking back, I don’t see that this has hurt me at all over the long run. I still don’t care about analyzing the works of Chaucer, and since then my mind has seen fit to reallocate the neurons once devoted to such tasks.
What would I do while I was procrastinating on school assignments? I spent many hours playing video games. I also read programming books and wrote small programs on my Atari 800 and then on a PC.
And this actually benefitted me in a huge way. Many years later I started a game development and publishing company and ran it for more than a decade. Thanks in part to my previous gaming experience, some of my games won industry awards. So while it seemed like I was procrastinating on the important stuff in high school, in truth I was putting off what was less relevant to me personally, so I could spend more time doing what actually mattered to me. Somehow I never got around to writing a computer game based on the life of Chaucer.
Years later, I found myself procrastinating on programming projects in order to read personal development books, listen to audio programs, and write articles. My early article writing was actually a form of procrastination. I always had to put off something seemingly more important to free up time to crank out a new article.
I’d also coach other game developers as a form of procrastination, helping certain people gain the knowledge and skills they needed to quit their corporate jobs and start their own indie game development businesses. But the funny thing is that further down the road, I ended up licensing and publishing games from some of those developers I helped.
In retrospect, this pattern of procrastination has benefitted me tremendously in the long run, although at the time it often seemed like a bad habit I needed to resist, and I’d feel guilty about it. It caused me some extra stress and a number of all-nighters. I’ve also had to deal with the occasional late fee or penalty now and then. But overall I have to say that all that procrastination wasn’t such a problem after all. I can make a case that it’s done me more good than harm.
Whose Agenda Are You Fulfilling?
Whose deadlines are you really working on? Are they your deadlines or someone else’s? If the deadlines aren’t really yours, why do you care so much about them anyway?
Quite often you’ll find yourself procrastinating on someone else’s agenda so you can spend more time working on your own. Much of the time, however, people aren’t in tune with their own agendas. They spend more time fussing over what they think they should be doing as opposed to what they actually want to be doing.
So what if you’re late? Do you really care all that much what your teacher thinks of you… or your boss… or the government?
Other people’s deadlines are just that — other people’s deadlines. They won’t always mesh with your desires.
Even if you choose to take on a certain project, and you’re the one defining the milestones along the way, you may find that at some future point, you seem to be resisting your earlier decisions. You may have a hard time getting yourself to take action when you know that you “should.”
Where do you think this resistance comes from? What if this isn’t a failing at all? What if your procrastination is actually a signal that your priorities are askew? What if procrastination is a sign that a greater intelligence is trying to nudge you in a whole new direction?
How Much Is Procrastination Really Hurting You?
When you feel that you’re procrastinating, take a deeper look at what’s going on. First of all, is your procrastination really hurting you all that much? Or are you making mountains out of molehills?
In the grand scheme of things, having to pay a late fee is hardly the end of the world. Same goes for doing an occasional all-nighter. The money can be recouped. You’ll have a chance to catch up on your sleep later. You’ll recover easily enough. The consequences are little more than a mosquito bite.
Even when something seems really bad at the time, years later you may look back and realize it wasn’t such a big deal after all. And maybe it actually helped you get onto a better path.
For example, if your procrastination is so “bad” that you end up failing your classes and getting kicked out of college, initially it may seem like a huge blow. You may be inclined to beat yourself up with guilt, and the people around you may heap loads of disappointment onto you. But later in life when the emotional sting wears off, you may realize that this was a powerful step along your path of growth. You’ll begin to see the good in those trying times.
Perhaps your procrastination helped you escape the wrong major. After all, how can you purport to be majoring in something that’s aligned with your passion and talents if you got yourself expelled because when push came to shove, you consistently opted to do something other than tend to your studies? Maybe your real mistake was further upstream, and procrastination helped you escape a dead-end track.
Another possibility is that the timing just wasn’t right. Maybe your procrastination is telling you that this is the wrong time to attend college. Perhaps you should travel the world for a while. Maybe you don’t need a college degree at all. Maybe you should dive right in and get to work doing what you love. What if the decision to earn a degree was just a fear-based delay tactic?
The Benefit of Hindsight
Even when it seems like your procrastination habit is a purely destructive one, there may be hidden benefits that can be difficult to see at the time.
When I got expelled from UC Berkeley after 3 semesters — I think that in my final semester, my GPA actually started with the decimal point — it was a huge blow to me at the time. Even worse was that I’d just gotten out of jail after being charged with felony grand theft, and I was awaiting my court date. This was a major low point in my life. I was only 19 years old at the time, and I constantly beat myself up about the stupid mistakes I’d made. I thought I was a fairly intelligent guy, but apparently my choices had been incredibly stupid. I procrastinated endlessly on my studies, so I could do things like drink alcohol, go to parties, play poker, and shoplift.
My original plan was to earn my degree in computer science, then maybe go on to earn a Ph.D. Afterwards I could get a nice job as a computer programmer somewhere. That was my “should” path.
Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, however, the seemingly crazy path I ended up taking turned out to be tremendously valuable. It was very stressful at the time, but to this day, I remain immensely grateful that I didn’t stick to my original plan and graduate from UC Berkeley. If I’d followed that course, I might be working as a computer programmer for the government or some corporation today. That wouldn’t necessarily be a terrible outcome, but I’d much rather be where I am today than where I expect that path would have led me. I think my original plan would have been a heartless path for me in the long run.
Instead, my procrastination put me in a position where I had to learn entirely different lessons. Through shoplifting I pushed myself to face my fear again and again and to control my adrenaline response, so I could maintain my composure even when taking big risks. That has been of tremendous benefit to me ever since, especially in business. I really love that I’m able to look at something that scares me and motivate myself to plow right through it without freezing up. It’s very unlikely I’d be doing public speaking today if I’d never learned those courage lessons via shoplifting.
Secondly, I learned how to handle negative social pressure. When I hit that low point in my life, everyone who knew me at the time seemed deeply disappointed in me. A lot of criticism was heaped upon me, and I can’t say that it was unwarranted. But in order to make forward progress and turn things around, I had to learn to tune out unhelpful feedback, decide for myself what was best, and take action without the benefit of social support. Otherwise I’d have gotten stuck in a place of self-pity or defensiveness. This ability still comes in handy today. For instance, I feel quite comfortable opening up about topics that will predictably generate a lot of negative feedback (such as polyamory or divorce). It’s hard for me to get worked up over anonymous Internet criticism after what I’ve already been through.
Thirdly, I had to learn to love myself unconditionally. The beating I gave myself at the time was worse than what anyone else could have done to me. I was terribly disappointed in myself, and I felt guilty about blowing everything that seemed important. As I recovered from those experiences, which took a long time, I gradually learned to accept myself in spite of my apparent flaws. I had to learn that I’m still worthy of love. We all are. By loving myself, I feel more inclined to care about others. A few days ago, I noticed that a friend seemed to be feeling down on herself, so I wrote her a note to offer her some support and to remind her that she’s loved and appreciated. And of course I had to procrastinate on something “important” to do that. Perhaps our to-do lists should include more items like this to begin with.
Fourthly, I became more motivated than ever to do some good with my life. I was so disgusted with the way I’d been living that I pushed myself to the opposite end of the spectrum. I began spending a lot of time working on my character development. Changes were slow and gradual, but eventually I grew into a man who felt good about himself and his contribution to the world.
Fifthly, I became a lot less judgmental towards others. Given my sordid past, who am I to judge someone else for their choices? I learned that accepting others and accepting myself are two sides of the same coin; you can’t love and accept yourself without doing the same for others. In my writing I will sometimes temporarily adopt a very opinionated position to stimulate people to think about the ideas, but that’s simply a literary tool I employ to make articles more impactful and memorable. People who hang out with me in person know that I’m ridiculously accepting of others, regardless of their lifestyles. Consequently, I seem to have a habit of attracting friends who are often subjected to harsh judgment by society, including psychics, strippers, porn stars, polyamorous people, pot smokers, people with non-mainstream spiritual beliefs, and of course those “crazy” jobless folks. This has added tremendous richness to my life, including many fun and educational experiences that I’d have otherwise missed. Associating with such people has also helped me feel a lot more comfortable in my own skin.
And finally, I gained much more freedom. Since I had failed in such a big way, everyone else’s expectations of me hit rock bottom. No one expected anything from me after that. This gave me the social and emotional freedom to begin taking control of my life without feeling that I had to live up to anyone else’s expectations. Even though I was in a low place, I felt like I finally had the wherewithal to steer my life as I saw fit without worrying about what other people might think. I could hardly make things worse, so it was easier to take some risks.
To this day I’m immensely grateful for these lessons (and many more), which came about as a result of procrastinating on my studies in order to follow other impulses. I can’t be sure where those impulses came from, but I’ve since learned not to reject such urges out of hand. Perhaps there is a greater intelligence at work here.
Stop Beating Yourself Up
If you have a tendency to beat yourself up for procrastinating, maybe you should stop doing that. It doesn’t help you anyway, does it?
Perhaps procrastinating isn’t such a bad thing after all. What if there are important growth experiences to be found within your procrastination?
Are the items on your to-do list really so important? Are they important to you personally? Why do you feed them so much energy?
Even the stuff that seems really important in the moment may look totally different with the benefit of hindsight.
You may be beating yourself up because your procrastination seems to be leading you astray. What if you’re even at risk of losing your home? Is it possible that this may turn out to be a good thing in the long run? Who’s to say that losing your stuff is bad?
Maybe you’ll find newfound freedom in a life of minimalism. Maybe you’ll end up living in a much nicer place down the road. Maybe the experience will help you develop more courage and self-acceptance. Maybe you’ll gain a cool story to blog about someday, whereby you’ll be in a position to help other people learn valuable lessons.
Realize that someday, all of this will be gone. Eventually you’ll pass on and leave this world behind. What will matter to you most when you’re on your deathbed? Will you wish you’d hit more of your assigned deadlines ahead of time? Or will you perhaps wish that you’d spent more time following your heart? Will you regret those late assignments? Or will you regret those amazing life experiences that you missed because you were too busy working to meet someone else’s deadline?
What if… instead of resisting your impulse to procrastinate, you threw yourself into it more fully? What if you dove headfirst into your biggest procrastination impulses? Where might they lead you?
Maybe procrastination won’t seem like such a curse if you follow those impulses without so much guilt and resistance.
You’re probably going to procrastinate anyway, so why not do it in style?
When you feel the urge to procrastinate, what are you driven to do?
Do you feel like watching movies? Perhaps you could become the next Roger Ebert.
Do you prefer to play computer games? Maybe someday you’ll start a game review site or become a game designer. Maybe playing games will evolve into a fun hobby that you can enjoy with friends and family. You might even find a new relationship partner via an online game.
Do you like to escape into books? If you read enough books in a certain field, you can eventually become an international expert. I learned a great deal about personal development by reading hundreds of books, but at the time it often seemed like I was procrastinating on something more important.
Do you invest a lot of time and energy in online socializing? Maybe you’ll meet your next relationship partner that way. Or perhaps you’ll become a highly paid social media consultant. Corporations are throwing thousands of dollars at such consultants just to learn how to use Twitter and Facebook like any teenager can. You may not even realize just how valuable your expertise can be to the right people.
Maybe you could do what the worst procrastinators in the world frequently do. Start your own productivity blog.
Having a Life
What would you rather be doing than working to meet someone else’s deadlines?
Quite often when you procrastinate, you’ll find yourself doing what it takes to have a life.
If you stopped resisting the urge to procrastinate and simply went with it, what new experiences would you invite into your life?
What other emotions are hidden behind those surface feelings of stress and resistance? Do you also see some potential excitement staring back at you? What about the feeling that maybe you could get all the so-called “important” work done in half the time you originally estimated while still carving out space to do what you love? Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to blow off today and go have some fun.
Isn’t it a more natural tendency to do what you enjoy first… then do what you supposedly have to do as urgency dictates? Perhaps you should allow those “have tos” to build up a certain level of urgency-based pressure before you tend to them. Such pressure has some benefits, doesn’t it? Once it reaches a certain level, you may be able to plow through tons of work with unrelenting speed and focus, drawing on inner resources that you could never bring to bear when you were swimming in extra time.
Maybe you’ve been over-thinking this problem, turning it into a phantom boogieman. What if you simply relaxed into the idea of following your heart? Let the procrastination happen. Let the pressure build. If there’s something that really does need to be done, you’ll find a way to get it done. You always do when it truly matters, don’t you? It’s not like you’ve procrastinated yourself into starvation. Despite all your worst procrastination episodes, you’re still breathing, aren’t you?
You may think that procrastination is hurting you, but is that harm actually real? Or is it just imaginary harm? Are you still whole and intact?
Perhaps there is some greater intelligence nudging you to delay tasks and activities that merely seem important but really aren’t.
“Having a life” might just be what happens while you’re procrastinating on something else. When you delay to the limit those uninspired tasks, you’ll create more space in your life for inspiration and joy.
* * *
I hope you enjoyed this article since I procrastinated on lots of accounting work to write it. I’m sure I’ll feel plenty guilty about that later.
In the meantime, please ponder these quotes from Geoffrey Chaucer:
- Love is blind.
- Forbid us something, and that thing we desire.
- The life so short, the crafts so long to learn.
- First he wrought, and afterward he taught.
- The greatest scholars are not usually the wisest people.
- The guilty think all talk is of themselves.
- Time and tide wait for no man.
- Women desire six things: They want their husbands to be brave, wise, rich, generous, obedient to wife, and lively in bed.
You had to procrastinate on something to read this article, didn’t you?