Procrastination gets a bad reputation, especially in business. Experiences with chronic procrastinators can lead to labeling them as “lazy,” “unproductive” and “unreliable.” Even on a personal level, all of us have procrastinated before, and most of us beat ourselves up over it. But are all forms of procrastination bad for work?
In actuality, we all procrastinate, but the trick is leveraging that procrastination to complete productive and innovative work. How is this possible? Let’s find out.
Why Do People Procrastinate?
The truth is that, in some instances, procrastination is a necessary part of life. Can you imagine if, for every minute of every day, we were working on some task at hand? Sure, we might feel extremely productive, but we’d be nothing more than machines. As Lifehacker’s Alan Henry writes, “If we’re supposed to banish all downtime, or any idle time we have where we’re not doing ‘productive work,’ we’re also banishing the only times our brain has to recharge. Procrastination, distraction and boredom are essential to our mental health.”
While that’s the common-sense answer, science offers another perspective. According to experts, procrastination stems from two sections of our brains battling against each other: the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex.
The limbic system is an unconscious zone that includes our pleasure center. It is a dominant section of our brain, and it instinctually controls our actions. For example, when we touch a flame, it’s our limbic system that forces us to retract: it automatically seeks pleasure where there is none.
On the other hand, our prefrontal cortex is our planner; it takes us away from “instinct” and stimuli to help us integrate information, make decisions and take action. The prefrontal cortex is not as dominant as the limbic system, so when it tells us we need to complete a task that is not enjoyable, more often than not, our limbic system overrides it, and procrastination sets in.
In its most basic terms, there are two reasons why we procrastinate:
- We’re bored and find no pleasure in what we’re doing
- We’d rather do more-rewarding tasks.
Boredom as a Driver of Productive Procrastination
Being bored isn’t fun, and our limbic system hates it. So when we’re stuck in the office, working on mind-numbing busy work, it’s our limbic system that tells us to shelf this work for something more rewarding, whether that be another type of work, taking a quick walk or even watching YouTube videos.
But beyond that, boredom is actually a beneficial emotion that compels us to see and interact with our world in different ways. According to Dr. Teresa Belton, contributor to The Cambridge Journal of Education, boredom should “be recognized as a legitimate human emotion that can be central to learning and creativity”; it “offers a person the opportunity for a constructive response” to the problems they face.
As a real-world example, think back to when you were in school. In those times when the professor wailed about some theory we couldn’t care less about, most of us avoided the pain of listening by doodling in our notebooks. This is how boredom drives productivity, especially creative productivity. To avoid something boring, we do something fun, and given the right circumstances, that something fun could actually be something productive.
British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, quoted in Psychology Today, perhaps said it best:
Two crucial processes begin with boredom: curiosity and desire. When we are bored, we begin to wonder about things. And curiosity is the starting point for growth, interest and creativity. The same is true of desire. If we are given everything, we want nothing. And if we don't want anything, we will never be motivated to achieve or grow or create or even to love.
The Benefits of Procrastination
Workers in creative industries often have the same stories. Swamped with a deadline, they put their work to the side, sip a cocktail and chat with a colleague. Somewhere along the line, it comes to them, the big idea that solidifies their work. This is productive procrastination in action. Sometimes, we put a problem aside and decide to work on it tomorrow, and when we’re in the most random spots—stuck in traffic, taking a shower, getting ready to sleep—we realize the perfect solution, and suddenly all our work is done.
This is known as “the creative pause,” described by professor Lajos Szekely in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis as “the time interval [that] begins when the thinker interrupts conscious preoccupation with an unsolved problem, and ends when the solution to the problem unexpectedly appears in consciousness.”
Procrastination fuels the creative pause, and the epiphanies it elicits produce some of our most memorable and rewarding work. But while this pause takes our minds off the task at hand, procrastination also allows us to focus on it.
The Creative Research Journal conducted a study on a group of winners from the Intel Science Talent Competition. The study found that some winners approached procrastination as a “thought incubator,” which allowed them to fully dive into and understand the problem before attempting to solve it. Other winners used procrastination as a stress trigger: they put off their work until the last minute, and when the deadline approached, they used the stress to fuel production. Either way, these intellectuals used procrastination to their advantage, and the result was great work that paid dividends.
This isn’t to say that all types of boredom and procrastination are beneficial. Instead, given the right setting and knowing the proper way to prioritize, boredom and procrastination can drive not only productive work, but also meaningful and innovative work. But how can we avoid bad procrastination and embrace the good kind? Let’s find out.
Harnessing the Right Kind of Procrastination
Scientists argue that there are two types of procrastination: active and passive. Passive procrastination is the bad kind. It’s what compels us to put off work and watch YouTube videos; it paralyzes us with indecision, and as a result, we fail to complete any tasks on time.
Active procrastination, however, is beneficial. It’s when we put something aside to complete another task that’s more important, and that’s the type of procrastination we should try to harness.
One way to leverage procrastination is to use a technique known as “Structured Procrastination.” John Perry, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, wrote a book, The Art of Procrastination, that outlines this technique. According to Perry, humans make mental lists of tasks they need to complete. At the top of these lists are the tasks of highest priority, while the bottom has those that are less important. As procrastinators, we tend to put off the tasks at the top of the list to work on seemingly easier and less-important ones at the bottom.
Perry says procrastinators often make the mistake of cutting down lists to make less tasks, believing it will minimize their commitments and allow them time to work on bigger projects. But this often backfires, as the fewer tasks that have to get done, the less motivation the procrastinator has to finish work. Instead, Perry writes, we should make long lists filled with minor and major jobs, so when we put off the top-ranked tasks, we’re still productive by working on the bottom ones. The true trick lies in convincing your brain that less-important tasks should be the highest priority. For example, when you rent a book from a library, it has a deadline to return it. This deadline makes it a “priority,” but when compared to other work, returning a library book isn’t too important. So put the book’s return at the top of your tasks list, and when you put that off for items below it, you’re actually getting real work done.
Novelist Raymond Chandler had a different approach. Instead of long lists, he made two rules to force himself to work:
- You don’t have to write.
- You can’t do anything else.
Faced with the option of either writing for a few hours or staring blankly at nothing, Chandler’s limbic system chose the most enjoyable act of the two: writing. And his impressive body of work tells us all that this method was effective.
No matter what method you choose, it’s vital to see the importance in prioritizing and using downtime productively. No one is expected to be a machine at the office that never takes a break (we hope), but the trick is using those breaks to fuel truly rewarding and high-quality work, instead of using them to waste time on useless distractions.