Why Procrastination Doesn't Need A Cure—And Might Even Make You More Productive

Is wasting time as productivity killing as we've always thought, or does it provide a creativity-enhancing escape from the chaos of the world? Stop dawdling and let's explore!

Editor's Note: This story contains one of our 11 New Years resolutions you can actually keep in 2014. For the full list, click here.

Recently, I read a great book and promised to mail it to a friend overseas when I was done, about nine months ago. Today, I finally wandered down to the post office and mailed it, because the alternative was working on this blog post. This is classic procrastination at work.

If you’ve noticed yourself doing this as well, you might have explored “cures” for procrastination, or tips to improve your productivity. I’ll admit, I’ve spent many hours procrastinating by exploring these very things. And we’ve even written a huge amount about these topics on here.

Somehow, the irony of wasting time reading about how to not waste time is never enough to get me moving.

The interesting thing about procrastination is that we generally equate it with “being lazy” or “wasting time,” and thus see it as a very negative trait--one to be fixed or avoided. A New Yorker article explained how detrimental procrastination can be, psychologically:

The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people. This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.

One study on procrastination showed that 65% of the students surveyed knew that procrastination would make them unhappy and wished to avoid it. It might be, however, that procrastinating can actually help us get more done--at least more of the important things. Let’s take a look at how procrastination really works, and why it might not be so bad, after all.

Why we procrastinate

The science of procrastination shows that it comes from two forces battling against each other in our brains. One is the limbic system, which is the “unconscious zone that includes the pleasure center.” The other is the prefrontal cortex, often known as the “internal planner.” So the limbic system fights for short-term pleasure, i.e. what we want right now, while the prefrontal cortex fights for what’s best for us in the long run.

According to Timothy A. Pychyl Ph.D., author of The Procrastinator’s Digest: A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, the prefrontal cortex is the portion of our brains that really separates us from animals, who are “just controlled by stimulus.” Unfortunately, there’s nothing automatic about this newer, weaker area of our brains. Unlike the limbic system, we really need to consciously kick it into gear to get things done.

The limbic system, on the other hand, will take over as soon as we’re not consciously pushing forward on a task and make us give in to what feels good--i.e. procrastinating.

So our procrastination effectively comes down to our biology. In fact, the economist George Ainslie even said that procrastination “could well be called the basic impulse.”

Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham has seen more than his fair share of procrastinators. He even says that the most impressive people he knows are all [“terrible procrastinators].” Paul has a couple of theories about why we procrastinate. One looks at the disconnect between working on important projects and the rewards we receive for finishing them:

If you work on something you can finish in a day or two, you can expect to have a nice feeling of accomplishment fairly soon. If the reward is indefinitely far in the future, it seems less real.

Secondly, Paul points to the fear that comes with working on big, important projects:

Big problems are terrifying. There’s an almost physical pain in facing them.

You’ve probably come across this before. It’s what happens when we want to take on an ambitious project, and we suddenly find all manner of unavoidable obstacles in our way. When running errands takes up so much time that we can’t even begin to write our novel, it’s often because fear is holding us back and our limbic system is taking over--protecting us from the unpleasantness that is fear, and taking us toward the familiar buzz of “getting things done” that meaningless errands can give us.

Paul Graham

James Surowiecki explained in the New Yorker that many procrastinators are self-handicappers: “rather than risk failure, they prefer to create conditions that make success impossible, a reflex that of course creates a vicious cycle.”

Why procrastination doesn’t need a cure

It’s true that most of us see procrastination as a bad thing, and it’s not difficult to find hundreds of articles or books telling us how to cure or overcome this flaw. But as Paul Graham says, strictly speaking, it’s impossible to cure procrastination:

No matter what you work on, you’re not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

Paul breaks down procrastination into three variants, depending on what you do instead of doing your work:

  1. You do nothing.
  2. You do something less important.
  3. You do something more important.

It’s easy to see how type three procrastination can actually be really beneficial to us. Instead of running errands, writing emails or doing housework, we could be focusing on our most important work.

On the other hand, John Perry, a Professor Emeritus at Stanford, wrote in the Huffington Post that type two procrastination can lead to us producing better work when we get around to it. He said that since many procrastinators are perfectionists who dream of doing a perfect job of those most important tasks, putting them off can be beneficial:

Leaving it till the last minute is a way of giving oneself permission to do a merely adequate job. Ninety-nine percent of the time a merely adequate job is all that is needed.

Another benefit of type two procrastination that’s sometimes pointed out is that we often have tasks to do that are not really important. By putting them off, they’ll disappear eventually anyway, and we’ll save ourselves from doing unimportant work. I’ll let you decide whether you want to test this theory, though!

Good procrastination

So if we want to harness our procrastination into a positive trait, there are a couple of theories about how we can do this. The first is Paul Graham’s idea of type three procrastination, or “good” procrastination.

This is when we procrastinate on unimportant tasks, for instance errands or “busy work” so we can spend more time on our most important work. If I had worked on this post instead of going to the post office, that would be a good example.

Errands is a particular type of distraction that Paul advocates for procrastinating against:

There’s more to do than anyone could. So someone doing the best work they can is inevitably going to leave a lot of errands undone. It seems a mistake to feel bad about that.

There’s an important reason that leaving busy work undone is useful for getting big projects done. Our important projects usually require two things that errands or busy work don’t: large amounts of time, and being in the right mood. When we’re inspired to work on something important, it would be a mistake to waste that inspiration on getting unimportant tasks done, because we think we should. Channeling our energy into our big projects whenever we can might mean we don’t keep up with household chores and smaller tasks, but perhaps Paul is right that this is a good thing.

Work on an ambitious project you really enjoy, and sail as close to the wind as you can, and you’ll leave the right things undone.

John Perry

Structured procrastination

The other side of the “positive procrastination” coin is the theory of structured procrastination, which John Perry advocates as being the best way to channel natural procrastination tendencies into productivity. As he explains it, structured procrastination is:

an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.

Structured procrastination is essentially type two procrastination, as mentioned above, although the art of tricking ourselves about the importance of our tasks comes into play as well. The idea is that while we think we are working on less important tasks as a way to avoid the big projects we should be doing, we are in fact tricking ourselves into working on our most important projects after all.

The practice exploits the fact that we generally list our tasks by order of importance. More urgent or important tasks sit at the top of our to-do lists, although many other important tasks will also be listed. Natural procrastinators will usually avoid those important and difficult (or fear-inducing) tasks at the top of the list in favor of easier, smaller tasks further down.

In this way, type two procrastinators can in fact get a lot done, so long as it helps us to avoid those big projects we think we should be doing.

In 1930, Robert Benchley wrote this appropriate quote:

The psychological principle is this: anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

What makes this strategy productive, however, is when we twist it to our advantage. By adding tasks to our to-do lists that seem urgent or important, but actually aren’t, we can trick ourselves into doing things that really need to be done, since we think we’re procrastinating on bigger tasks.

Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary pointed out that many procrastinators are already good at the kind of self-deception needed to wrangle our procrastination skills into useful habits:

Productive procrastination is a bit of make-believe, along the lines of setting your watch five minutes fast. You know you did it, but you still pretend you didn’t.

How to make procrastination work for you

If you’re a chronic procrastinator like me, here are some strategies to pull your procrastinating into line and get more done.

Start small

Paul Graham makes a good point that working on our biggest, most important projects can be so scary and overwhelming that we sometimes need to work up to it. He suggests working on small tasks that can grow into big projects, or starting small and working up to larger tasks. We can also collaborate with others so that our part is smaller than the whole project, but we still have a hand in doing important work.

Adjust your to-do list

Using John Perry’s structured procrastination strategy, try adding tasks to the top of your list that seem to have urgent deadlines or to be incredibly important, but in fact can either be safely put off until later or not done at all. The tricky part is getting yourself to believe that these tasks are important and difficult, so that you’ll complete other tasks on your list in order to avoid them.

We’ve also talked before about the best ways to create a meaningful to do list, which might be a good place to start.

Raymond Chandler

If you can successfully implement this strategy, you’ll be well on your way to getting more done and being a productive procrastinator!

Set boundaries

Novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler understood his own procrastination tendencies and used boundaries to help himself get work done. He used to force himself to write by setting aside writing time every day and ensuring he followed two basic rules:

  1. You don’t have to write.
  2. You can’t do anything else.

In order to avoid the tedium of sitting idle for four hours per day, he became a highly productive writer.

He explained how this same strategy applies to children in schools:

If you make the pupils behave, they will learn something just to keep from being bored.

We’ve explored before in our scientific guide to saying “no“ how important it is to be able to prioritize relentlessly.

Increase your commitments

According to John Perry, procrastinators often try to reduce their commitments, hoping that with fewer things to do, they’ll actually get more done. John explained, however, that this removes the procrastinator’s most important source of motivation by removing any choice between important and unimportant tasks. With only a few tasks on your to-do list, you can only procrastinate by doing nothing:

This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

So the lesson of all this research seems to be that procrastination is not uncommon, nor is it necessarily a bad thing. In learning to wrangle our tendencies to procrastinate, we can effectively get more done.

What are your procrastonation habits like? Have you found a good way to overcome them? Let us know in the comments.

If you enjoyed this article you might also like “The surprising history of the to-do list and how to design one that actually works” and “A scientific guide to saying “no”: How to avoid temptation and distraction

Image credits: GrowHack, Mother Nature Network, Venture Galleries

--Belle Beth Cooper is a Content Crafter at Buffer and Co-founder of Hello Code. Follow her on Twitter at @BelleBethCooper.

This post originally appeared on Buffer, and is reprinted with permission.

[Image: Flickr user Zaqi]

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18 Comments

  • Micheal Davis

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  • Micheal Davis

    i am Michael Davis from Los Angele's, CA. i want to share my testimony with you In 1985, at the age of 25, having heard so much about the 'AIDS epidemic,' I decided to take the test. I tested positive. I went for a second opinion and again the result was positive. Since I had heard and read that the virus could be dormant for a long time, I opted to eat well, exercise, take high quality vitamins and limit 'risky sex.' However, my gut feeling was that something wasn't adding up with AIDS, and I almost immediately chose not to accept the virus as a detriment to my health.

    "Throughout the years I've lived my life almost as if AIDS didn't exist but still gathered information from various sources. then i saw this great Dr Oseghale and contacted him with his email address and i told him the problem i was facing and i know he can help because i have heard so much about him so he gave me some instruction to follow which i followed accurately and he assured me that once he help me to cast a

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  • George Rnath

    Truthfully, i was tested HIV + positive last 3years. I keep on managing the drugs i usually purchase from the health care agency to keep me healthy and strenghtful, i tried all i can too make this disease leave me alone, but unfortunately, it keep on eating up my life, this is what i caused myself, for allowing my fiance have sex with me insecurely without protection. Although i never knew he is HIV positive. So last few 4days i came in contact with a lively article on the internet on how this Powerful Herb Healer get her well and healed. So as a patient i knew this will took my life one day, and i need to live with other friends and relatives too. So i copied out the Dr fadeyi the traditional healer’s email id: DOCTORFADEYITEMPLEOFSPELL@GMAIL.COM and I mailed him immediately, in a little while he mail me back that i was welcome to his temple home were by all what i seek for are granted. I was please at that time. And i continue with him, he took some few details from me and told m

  • Sonia Emma

    sonia After being in relationship with emma for seven years,he broke up with me, I did everything possible to bring him back but all was in vain, I wanted him back so much because of the love I have for him, I begged him with everything, I made promises but he refused. I explained my problem to someone online and she suggested that I should rather contact a spell caster that could help me cast a spell to bring him back but I am the type that never believed in spell, I had no choice than to try it, I mailed the spell caster, and he told me there was no problem that everything will be okay before three days, that my ex will return to me before three days, he cast the spell and surprisingly in the second day, it was around 4pm. My ex called me, I was so surprised, I answered the call and all he said was that he was so sorry for everything that happened, that he wanted me to return to him, that he loves me so much. I was so happy and went to him, that was how we started living together hap

  • Alicia Oxborn

    My name is Peter Pand from USA, I want to testify of how i got cured from HIV AIDS. I have been living with this deadly disease for the past 11months, i have done all i can to cure this disease but all my efforts proved abortive until i met a old friend of mine who told me about a spell caster who cast spells to heal all kind of diseases, though i never believed in spells i decided to give it a try when i contacted this spell caster, he helped me cast a healing spell, low and behold, when i went for a checkup i was told i am negative. Contact this great spell caster for any kind of disease via this email azizahealingtemple@gmail.com. Goodluck

  • Alicia Oxborn

    My name is Peter Pand from USA, I want to testify of how i got cured from HIV AIDS. I have been living with this deadly disease for the past 11months, i have done all i can to cure this disease but all my efforts proved abortive until i met a old friend of mine who told me about a spell caster who cast spells to heal all kind of diseases, though i never believed in spells i decided to give it a try when i contacted this spell caster, he helped me cast a healing spell, low and behold, when i went for a checkup i was told i am negative. Contact this great spell caster for any kind of disease via this email azizahealingtemple@gmail.com. Goodluck

  • Johnnie Jazz

    Aha! I knew it! Procrastinators are perfectionists! You have raised very interesting points on a topic that we can all relate to! This is a very unique perspective on procrastination! Thanks for making me feel less guilty about my habit!

  • susan

    This article served two purposes. I got to avoid doing billing and I got to empty part of my in box in an enlightening manner. thanks.

  • Pete Burden

    Interesting, though not sure I have time to read and process all the detailed bits. :)

    I have asked people this many times before but have never really received a satisfactory answer: "What's so good about doing things all the time?"

    Life is short and if we spend it doing stuff and achieving stuff - being 'productive' - isn't there a danger of missing it? (Life I mean).

    Is this all about the Protestant work ethic? Feeling guilty if we are not achieving and doing? Not producing....?

  • Ann Bevans

    Nice post, Belle. Very thorough. I think it's important to remember that human beings don't do anything that doesn't serve them in some way, either in the moment or in the future. The best strategies I've found have been to focus on what's important (not necessarily urgent) and to relax into it. Time has a way of expanding when we're not stressed out.

  • nacho

    I ve been sitting at my desk for an hour now, procrastinating, and this article served that purpose brilliantly! Now I don't feel that guilty ;-)