The More You Procrastinate, the Better You Get

Procrastination suffers from bad reputation. We see it as something natural and normal, yet ultimately undesirable. A lot of productivity evangelists and self-pronounced personal development warriors made things worse, declaring procrastination part of the axis of office evils. As such, it had to be fought, even if that meant committing war crimes against your inner idler. Sometimes, when reading about all these campaigns against procrastination, I am reminded of the fervor of the (not so) holy inquisition. It makes the lazier part of ourselves feel like a tormented freethinker in an age of productivity orthodoxy.

What puzzles me, though, is that many of the persecutors of procrastination cannot really know against what they are crusading. If they would, they couldn’t possibly be so productive, posting two times a day on their blogs, answering a million emails, and traveling from conference to conference to spread their enlightened words. Still, they claim to “understand” the alleged suffering caused by what Germans chicken-heartedly call “postponitis”, as if it was a more infectuous disease than the bubonic plague.

The Moebius Strip of Fake Productivity

Do you want to hear my take on all this? Bollocks! The real problem with procrastination is that people don’t know how to cope with it. And this comes to no surprise: We live in a culture of wannabe effectiveness and fake productivity, teaching even young children to make impeccable use of their time. Most 12 year olds in the suburbs of the USA seem to have a tighter schedule than I am ever going to have. Relaxing and doing nothing, they are taught, is a bad thing, just like using swear words or eating their finger nails.

As a result, people often fall into a trap I’d like to call the Möbius Strip of Fake Productivity: You don’t feel like you’re ready to work on any task that matters, but you don’t feel you’re allowed to do nothing, either. So you will just nervously fill up your day with minor tasks, getting nothing important done, but neither taking the time to relax and give your idle brain some freedom. Just like walking on a Möbius strip, you could go on and on and on like this until you reach retirement age.

The alternative? Embrace this lovely human quality called procrastination! Grab your scissors, cut the möbius strip, and decide to turn pro not only in your work, but also in procrastination. Both things have a place in our life, and both can be embraced.

The Decision between Work and Idleness

The next time you suffer from procrastination, why not take a step back and look at it from a distance? Instead of getting nervous and starting to do anything just to feel “busy” or “productive”, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is the task you’re procrastinating on relevant and important?
  • Does it really have to be done?
  • Does it have to be done by you?

If the answer to any of these questions is “no”, consider dumping the task right away. Let someone else do it, or just decide to cancel it all together.

If the answers are yes…

  • Ask if you maybe just need a break.
  • Ask if the task has to be done now, or if you should be doing it later.
  • Ask if there is something of higher importance you feel like doing at the moment.

Procrastination is not an evil. It’s either your body or your brain sending you an important message, but you decide to ignore it and instead start responding to meaningless emails. Remember: It is only natural to feel exhausted sometimes. Also, your brain might just want to point you at something else you had to do but pushed aside earlier. Be observant of these things and find out what your procrastination really is about. If no important work needs to be done, don’t be shy to enjoy idleness.

How to pro-crastinate

Procrastination, like everything, takes some time to be perfected. The more you procrastinate, the better you get. All these self-help authors who haven’t done their 10.000 hours of it should just shut up.
Believe it or not, procrastination is a form of art, and it can be a pleasant use of your time. But it never will be, if you only feel remorse and qualms instead of taking it for what it is: An inherent part of work itself. Don’t spoil it by adding stupid tasks to your day, or it will just get worse the next time you get back at what you were initally wanting to do.

Here are some ideas on how to spend some great hours procrastinating like a pro:

  • Take a nap.
  • Look at the sky. (If you’re inside, go out.)
  • Take a walk.
  • Meditate a little, even if you don’t know how. (Just follow your intuition. You don’t need to attend a course for that.)
  • Skribble. (Doodle, as other people say.)
  • Do some yoga. (My friend Nate can teach you how.)
  • Invent dinner. (Go get the ingredients, if necessary.)

Also, don’t be selfish! Share the love and procrastinate with others:

  • Call an old friend or family member and talk for an hour.
  • Upload the photos from your daughters birthday and send the link around.
  • Have coffee and a chat with your boss.
  • Recommend good reads on Twitter.
  • Send me an email with a good story or an interesting question, or post it in the comments.

Psst! Liked this post? Then please share it on Twitter or recommend it to your friends. It would be a great help! Also, a big thank you to spacepleb for the awesome photo I used above!

Comments 39

  1. JC Hewitt July 8, 2010

    On my most profitable and productive days, I spend the majority of my time doing nothing or performing simple manual tasks.

    For many, “productivity” is a means of emotional repression. They spend as much time as possible doing things to avoid their emotions. I fall into this trap too sometimes.

    The only reason why I have any marketable skills today are because I spent most of my time “procrastinating.” Avoiding what other people want you to do is the best way to get time to invest in yourself. Slaves are the hardest workers, but the least productive. There are plenty of rich people (and formerly rich) that spent decades working constantly, and then will lose everything in a string of divorces or poor investment decisions.

    On an unconscious level, they want to lose. They seek punishment and regimentation because they fear the alternative.

    • Fabian July 8, 2010

      Productivity as “a means of emotional repression” – sounds quite logical to me. Also, the form of procrastination you describe is well-known to me. You don’t have to idle, but just can do a more useful thing…

  2. Nate July 8, 2010

    Thanks for the shoutout Fabian! I agree on the increased popularity of productivity and all the supposed hacks to be super, super, super productive…whatever the heck that means. Having said that, I do have to say that I’m a big fan of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. There’s a lot of focus on balance, which I appreciate. Making sure you tend to your health and spirit, not just your career. That, I can appreciate!

    • Fabian July 8, 2010

      I don’t know the book, but it sounds useful: The balance of idleness and action is what I am trying to establish, too, and it is really also my main recommendation for all procrastinators and stressed people out there.

  3. James July 9, 2010

    Great read and spot on I feel. I’ve always felt procrastination wasn’t an inherently bad thing. Like everything it’s about balance. A little procrastination is useful for the reasons you mention. It’s just procrastinating all the time with everything, or trying to be super-productive and not procrastinate at all, is where the problems lie.

    The bit about doing fake work for the sake of it rings so true with me. However, in a way I do like to be active. I do find it quite relaxing to do those niggling tasks from time to time, because it distracts my mind from other matters. Of course that could just be some sort of inner guilt about inactivity driving me to do that. Something to think about perhaps.

    • Fabian July 9, 2010

      Well, some of these small tasks might actually give your idle brain space to work, if they are simple enough. My problem is that sometimes, we will just make these tasks up, though they actually don’t really need to be done. This doesn’t seem to helpful to me, and may even become a useless habit. Here’s where I say: Drop it, just relax “officially”. Other small tasks, of course, have to be done anyway, so it’s fine to do them when being on a lower energy level.

  4. Tim July 11, 2010

    Thanks for the key. I love when people give me questions to ask myself. Sometimes I feel as if I’m not very good at coming up with the kinds of thought-provoking questions I really need.

    Or it could just be that those questions are from someone with a different perspective who isn’t me.

    PS Did you procrastinate while working on this article? I hope you say yes.

    • Fabian July 11, 2010

      Glad the questions help!
      And yes, I procrastinated a lot. The writing itself was pretty smooth (as it generally is), but then came the part of editing and correcting and doing the markup in WordPress and finding the picture, and, as always, I found many great opportunities to procrastinate on that! :)

  5. Courtney July 11, 2010

    Sometimes it’s hard to give yourself permission to do something that feels right. Thank you for the quick questions to ask myself when I’m procrastinating. Most of the time I find that I’m just tired or stuck on a problem with my writing. A break often helps.

    I think a lot of these cult of personality gurus demonize things that everyone experience in order to seem enlightened and relevant.

    • Fabian July 11, 2010

      Courtney, thanks for taking the time to comment! I’m happy to hear that the questions help! One day, we’ll be enlightened, too… until then, let’s just ignore the “gurus”… ;)

  6. Baker July 14, 2010

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this unique insight you have discovered here and posted. One of the things as a full time blogger that I know that creeps up is this whole concept of procrastination. I have found that when I am feeling relaxed and easy about it, instead of beating myself up for procrastinating I feel a lot better about it. I enjoyed reading the questions that you pose as well here, as they are excellent in putting things in the bigger percpective.

    • Fabian July 15, 2010

      Baker, thanks for taking the time to comment! I´m happy to hear that the shift in perspective helps! :)

  7. Mark Lawrence July 15, 2010

    Right on Fabian! We are indoctrinated with the idea that we must be productive all the time and that idle time is bad! This fake productivity from childhood translate into fake work and fake projects and fake productivity in adulthood too! There are too many people stuck in the corporate world that stay late at their desks only because they want to look good. They don’t have anything to do, but they sit there looking busy. Work for work’s sake. Work smarter not harder. If I stand next to a wall exerting all my force, straining my muscles and sweating profusely in an attempt to move the wall, but the wall doesn’t move, did I do any real work?

    • Fabian July 15, 2010

      So true what you are saying about the corporate world and the addiction to overtime… Thanks for passing by, Mark!

  8. Sandra Hendricks July 15, 2010

    This was a very interesting and revealing outlook. Everything has balance and you have taken the idea to a whole new level with procrastination. I feel the same way about the word “should” it has a bad rep from the self-help industry as well. Thank you for sharing!

    Regards,
    Sandra

    • Fabian July 15, 2010

      Sandra, maybe we “should” create a dictionary of words endangered because of the self-help industry! While at it, we could also make one for words that are endangered to die because of their overuse through marketing departments! ;)
      Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!

  9. mike Ames July 16, 2010

    A very interesting read but sadly I disagree with a part of it. I see nothing wrong in personal indulgence – you know the “giving yourself permission to do what you what you want and not what you should” thing. In fact I’m all for it, I think it’s what makes life worth living but procrastination is not that. Procrastination is not doing something you need to do, you simply can’t bring yourself to start because you don’t know how to; it’s hard; there is a risk of failure or some other reason.

    I have managed enough people in my career to know that procrastinators will destroy your business and let work colleagues down causing them more work and more stress as they do so. Not good.

    So in my opinion procrastination is something to be isolated and dealt with – it is, as they say, the natural assassin of opportunity but my advice is to indulge yourself as much as you can afford.

    • Fabian July 16, 2010

      Hey Mike, thanks for sharing a professional view on the matter! Could you explain in a few words the part of “isolation” and “dealing with it”? I´d love to hear more on that.
      I think that maybe we have a problem with the term procrastination itself. The psychological definitions I am aware of certainly put the word in a much more negative context than the day-to-day use I have experienced. This lead to people becoming anxious because of, if we want to call it like that, “perceived procrastination”, that in reality was nothing but resistance to doing stupid or unnecessary tasks. It was that part of the term I was referring to, because I think that our work environments can become quite unhealthy if we´re only after results, not matter what. You might get results, but the quality goes down, innovation ends, and workers won´t feel well anymore. Does that make sense to you?

  10. janet July 19, 2010

    we’re studying how “laziness leads to downfall” at the temple in one of the sutras. I tend to disagree with it because I guess I feel ‘idleness’ can be productive too! I think people try to accomplish so much, but what’s wrong with an ordinary (as opposed to epic) life? A non-productive life.. etc. Relax and enjoy the simple moments. One thing also, as a social group, hippies may not be the most well revered, and as a group, they can be pretty lazy overall! I think a lot of people try to accomplish things, to feel like they’ve derived some meaning in their lives.. make something of themselves. etc. It’s all ego, really.

    • Fabian July 19, 2010

      Janet, why do the monks think that “laziness leads to downfall”? It reminds me a bit of the Christian cardinal sin of acedia (sloth) – that, of course, is often understood as “the sin of laziness”, while in reality it may be interpreted as “denial to be oneself”, resulting in useless productivity. Josef Pieper wrote about that.
      I too see the connection between ego and accomplishment you mention, the weird thing being that people will strive for accomplishments of external value instead of just going for what interests THEM.

  11. Maureen July 20, 2010

    Hey, I’m a new reader here and love your stuff. And this post, I just adore. Nice to know there are other True Believers. :) For years, I listened to a lot of nagging for “wasting your time, fooling around on the computer” when I could have been “getting something done”. I make my living fooling around on the computer now. ;)

    • Fabian July 20, 2010

      Maureen, thank you so much for your kind comment! It’s great to hear there are more of us benefiting from the occasional dives into procrastination and apparently aimless play. :)

  12. Ruben Berenguel July 21, 2010

    Today, reviewing my mind map of “pending blog comments” I saw that I had not commented here yet! Odd, because I even choose this post as my “One post in someone else’s blog that you wish you’d written”, in Darren Rowse’s 7 Link Challenge.

    As usual, you hit a point… And also as usual, it feels like I had the ideas behind this post already in my mind, just not well worked :)

    In my high school days I used to play a lot a soccer game (FIFA, don’t remember the version), and I also did it while in college (Pro Evolution Soccer). I set it in the easy level, usually with a good team for me and a random team as a rival, and just played without thinking. It was like a “Om” moment, where I just emptied my mind, as playing was definitely easy (I used to score at least 6 goals without even trying). This time was invaluable as *learning*… Because without being really conscious I was thinking about my days lessons, or recalling German words (at that time I was learning German).

    But I had to give up it, because it ate too much time… I need to find a better way to procrastinate, although I have found many procrastination-like time wasters that ended being quite useful (and I’ll tell about in a forthcoming post in my blog, probably… Do you want guest posts? ;)

    Ruben

    • Fabian July 21, 2010

      Hey Ruben, glad you joined in!
      The video game experience you mention seem to fit in with the common advice to give yourself a lot of sleep while studying, so that your brain can file away what you learned. Maybe, while being engaged with a simple and relaxing task like playing a video game, the brain works similar.
      I’m sorry to hear you had to stop, although I understand it pretty well. I was a huge gamer myself, in the times of 2D graphics, but the newer 3D titles were so complex that I would be needing days to even learn the controls. So I pretty much stopped playing video games many years ago, although it may also be true that I kind of replaced them with real-life playing, aka traveling… ;)
      As for your post, I’d love to see it. Please get in touch at any time!

  13. Abha July 23, 2010

    hello,I happened to read this ….I was really relieved to see that it it is perfectly natural to procrastinate.I had been indulging in lots of self blame for this habbit..Thanks abha

    • Fabian July 24, 2010

      Dear Abha, I in fact think that we are blaming us way too much for procrastinating. That said, there are of course different faces to it, as Mike lines out in his comment. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment! I really appreciate getting your feedback!

  14. Jesse July 26, 2010

    Oh! no, i can’t believe I am sold on this. It is very logical and
    makes a lot of sense. It is for the deep thinking individual
    to comprehend it’s meaning. Thanks.

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  16. GP September 10, 2010

    Nice and well written.. I have posted it on my FB status for my friends to enjoy it.. good job..

  17. boschi April 29, 2011

    nice article! I do procrastinate like a pro :D hahahas
    Profs always say dont wait until the last day to finish this program.
    I just wait until the last day to read the assignment. Still get it done most of the time. It does get a little bit out of hand sometimes though as I’ve had to stay up till 8am some of the times LOL

    • Fabian April 29, 2011

      Hey Boschi, big LOL for waiting until the last day to read the assignment! :D
      That’s risky business, my friend… at least for tasks you cannot avoid! Cross my finger it’ll always go well!

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