Research shows that you can achieve a lot by putting things off. Which is good news for serial procrastinator, Ben Hammersley
There’s an inevitable punchline when writing about procrastination. So let’s get that over with now.
I have lots of books on the subject, but I’ve not read them yet. There are techniques to get over it I shall learn, but not today. There’s this article to write but…well, yes. Anyway. The list of “Things That I Owe My Editor” has grown longer still.
Gags and personal ironies aside, we really need to reconsider procrastination. It’s not necessarily all that bad. In fact – and we’ll get to this in a minute – it can be really good for you.
First, let’s busy ourselves with tidying our definitions. There are lots of different reasons for putting things off. Some people avoid tasks because of a fear of failure, or indeed a fear of success, and all the changes that would bring about. They’re protecting the status quo of their lives, and themselves from the ego attack that change brings.
Some people – like myself, with all sorts of ADHD-related lack of brain chemicals – seem to procrastinate to build up a head of risk-related hormones without which our brains are mush. For them, nothing is going to happen until either the project is on fire, or the drugs kick in. Others still just do anything they can to avoid making decisions, simply so they can avoid taking responsibility for those decisions.
A perhaps larger group procrastinates because alt-tabbing over to Twitter is more interesting than this spreadsheet. Whichever reason you have – and don’t worry, you don’t need to decide now – you’re not alone. Roughly 20% of the population are counted as ‘chronic procrastinators’.
Lose your inner voice
But while all these reasons are, in many ways, entirely understandable, if not completely valid, there is another reason to put things off for a bit. It turns out it’s good for you.
No, really. Procrastinating over a project, and especially one with abstract problems to solve, can be an entirely rational thing to do. It might help. Procrastination can either be a way to allow your mind to work in the background on a complex task without the annoying intrusions of ego or neuroses or conscious over-thinking. Or it can be a way of identifying stuff you, in your heart, don’t want to do. It’s an opportunity for self-discovery.
The first of those is a well-known phenomenon(1). It’s why many people get good ideas in the shower, or when they wake up, or while running. By putting a problem to the back of your head, and out of your specifically channelled attention, it allows your brain to come at it from angles that are free from the sort of meta-commentary you otherwise experience. It’s that inner voice that dissuades you from going down the most effective or insightful routes. Freed from them, by allowing the problem to mature in the back of your head, you may well get better solutions.
Procrastination can be a way to allow your mind to work in the background on a complex task
Take your time
Research for this isn’t new. In the 1920s, the Soviet psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik performed a series of experiments that led her to propose a trait, later called the Zeigarnik effect(2), that states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than they remember completed ones. Procrastinated things, in other words, will haunt you.
Or, as Zeigarnik herself suggested in 1927, students who take a break from studying to do something unrelated will tend to remember their material better than students who don’t take a break. As with all cognition, metaphors of giving things time to process, or allowing ideas to mature, are literally wrong, but figuratively right. Giving things enough time works.
It helps to be aware of why you might be putting something off. Letting something simmer is one thing. But putting it off for other reasons might be a good sign of something else going on.
For example, serious procrastination on a specific project may indicate that it’s not the right project for you. If you never get around to doing something, it might be because you really don’t want to do it – you just think you do, or should, or something equally as annoying but ultimately less important than true self-awareness. Procrastination is the route to enlightenment. I mean, eventually. When we get around to it.
Behaviour – like procrastination and the judgement around it – is so deeply entwined with other cultural beliefs about the value of work and the work ethic, that it can be hard to see past the negative connotations. But, seen clearly, procrastination can, if used skilfully, be an excellent tool for solving both immediate problems, and wider life circumstances. It’s worth paying attention to it, at the very least. Even if, as we come to the final sentences, we find ourselves reaching for another procrastination-themed quip and fail to find one. Ah well, I’ll come back to that tomorrow.
Ben Hammersley is a British internet technologist, journalist, author and broadcaster, based in the US