Procrastination has gotten a bad rap.
Today’s business climate rewards speed. We strive to be the first, the quickest, and the one who gets the most done. Procrastination—the process of putting things off—seemingly gets in the way. Search Amazon and you’ll find more than 1,300 titles that want to help you cure, defeat, and eliminate this horrible, horrible habit. But is it really that bad?
Frank Partnoy, author of Wait, believes we’d all be better off if we embraced procrastination. In Greek and Roman times procrastination was revered; the wisest leaders would sit around and think, not doing anything unless it was absolutely necessary, he says in his book. This changed during the Puritan era, when procrastination was considered a "sin of folly." While the shame around it has remained, Partnoy says procrastination is really the art of managing delay, and it can lead to greater success and happiness.
John Perry, author of The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging, and Postponing, agrees. A Stanford University professor of philosophy, Perry recalls a time when he had a lot of papers to grade—but didn’t feel like it.
"At Stanford, I’m known as a guy who gets a lot done," he says. "I wondered how that could be when I know I’m an incredible procrastinator."
After doing some thinking (when he was supposed to grading papers), Perry realized he was actually a "structured procrastinator"—someone who does other things while he procrastinates. Partnoy calls it "active procrastination."
While both authors agree that unstructured or passive procrastinating is really laziness, they say that procrastination can be good when used in the right way. Here are seven reasons why you shouldn’t worry about putting off to tomorrow what you could do today:
If you have a task that you want to put off, Perry says structured procrastinators will find something else to do in its place. You might clean the house, pay your bills, research another project or send out overdue emails, for example, but in the end, you’ll get around to doing the thing you’re supposed to do.
"This isn’t bad because you’ve gotten all of those other things done in the meantime," he says. "If you had done the assigned task first, you might have called it a day and not accomplished anything else."
Procrastinating is thinking about the greatest amount of time you can delay taking an action or making a decision, and then waiting until the last minute, says Partnoy. During the delay, the procrastinator is gathering information, which is a recipe for success.
"We like to believe there is wisdom in our snap decisions and sometimes there is," he writes. "But true wisdom and judgment come from understanding our limitations when it comes to thinking about the future … That is why it is so important for us to think about the relevant time period of our decisions and then ask what is the maximum amount of time we can take within that period to observe and process information about possible outcomes."
Procrastinators are often big thinkers, says Perry, and putting off work can be an engine of human progress. When you’re assigned a task that seems too hard to do, procrastinating often leads you to invent a better way.
"If you go back through history of human culture, and take away every invention that was made by someone who was supposed to be doing something else, I’m willing to bet there wouldn’t be a lot left," he says.
Most large organizations assign tasks that aren’t vital to the success of the company, says Perry. When the employee procrastinates on this busy work, it often gets scrapped when important tasks arise.
"You would have wasted time doing these unnecessary things," he says, adding that there is an exception. "If your colleagues are counting on you, you should do the task so they don’t get annoyed."
If you step on someone’s foot or run your grocery cart into theirs, an immediate apology is expected and appropriate. In other situations, however, it’s best to wait, says Partnoy.
The most effective apologies come six hours after the situation, he says. This is because the aggrieved has had time to vent and gather more information. The emotions of the situation may have also subsided a bit, and they will be ready to receive an apology.
Your subconscious is often telling you something when you want to delay a task, says Perry.
"If you’re a productive person, the desire to procrastinate on a task can mean that the task isn’t important or valuable to you," he says. "Pay attention to that and ask yourself if you should be doing it at all."