You know the feeling. You’ve got an email you need to write, a paper you need to turn in, a form you need to fill out, or an enormous pile of laundry that needs washing. But all you want to do is kick back on the couch, watch Netflix, and think about all the important work you’re not doing. It’s too bad feeling guilty about not working doesn’t do much to actually get your work done. Except, it turns out that some experts think putting off your work isn’t such a bad thing. Here’s how not working can work for you.
In an interview with Smithsonian Magazine, former investment banker and corporate lawyer Frank Partnoy described in detail exactly how procrastination had helped him in his life. He’s kind of a pro at it. After all, he wrote the book on the subject. In Partnoy’s view, procrastination isn’t just a shortcoming of lazy people. It’s “a universal state of being for humans.” That is to say, human beings are notorious for overcommitting ourselves. It’s almost inevitable that we will, at any given point in time, have more things on our plate than we could possibly handle. And that’s where learning how to procrastinate comes in.
He uses an example from his childhood: when his mother would ask him to make his bed, he’d always resist. Why make the bed if he was just going to mess it up again? Because, said his mom, somebody might come to visit the house, and if they did, they might see his messy bed. To little Frank, that made his course of action clear — since he could make his bed in under a minute, and any visitors wouldn’t be coming until 6 p.m. at the absolute earliest, he wouldn’t need to do his chore until 5:59 at the earliest. Or as he put it, “I want to see a car in the driveway.”
You probably know the feeling: why do it now if you can panic about it at the eleventh hour? Luckily, you can use this tendency to make better decisions and get more done. First, answer the question, “What is the absolute last moment that I can do this work or make this decision?” Second, wait until that moment to do it. That gives you more time to think about your decision, weigh all factors, and make room for any unexpected events that might influence how you go about your choice.
Think about baseball. A first-time player might start running the minute they see the ball coming, even though it could be going faster or slower than they realize. Meanwhile, a seasoned shortstop knows how long they can wait before going exactly where they need to be.
There are a couple of ways you might be procrastinating in a less-than-ideal way. Here are some strategies to procrastinate the right way:
Plan your time wisely. Let’s talk about that “wait until the last second” part. Remember, the last second might be sooner than you think. If it’s a 500-word essay you need to write, you have to account for a lot more than just time it takes to write 500 words — there’s research and outlining to be done, as well.
Stack your tasks. So you’re waiting for two hours before it’s due to start on that essay. What should you do in the meantime? Is there an email you need to reply to? Some papers that need organizing? There are always chores around the house. But as you finish the dishes and turn to get started on vacuuming, that just seems like too big of a task — why not put it off for a moment while you do the reading for your essay? The key is to stack your tasks and make use of your newfound free time, instead of squandering it on Netflix.
Stay flexible. Let’s say that while you’re plugging away at your reading and letting the carpet stew in its grossness, your roommate just so happens to come home with a brand-new Roomba — or, more likely, they come home and spill a giant glass of orange juice on the floor. Either way, your efforts at vacuuming would have been for nothing. Good thing you were smart enough to put it off.
Whether you’re chomping at the bit to get your work done or you can’t be bothered with the stuff, the most important thing to remember is that your “downtime” isn’t downtime — your procrastination only helps your productivity if you actually use the time you’re taking on productive things. Otherwise, you’re only being efficient at shaping your couch indentation.
Check out my related post: Do you procrastinate?