There’s a Way to Procrastinate That’s Actually Effective

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Mar 22, 2019

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We’ve all been there. The deadline is looming, you look at the clock and keep calculating just how much time is left before you really, really have to get down to work. And in the meantime, you scroll through Instagram, or watch cat videos, as your stress mounts.

Why do we do this to ourselves? Procrastination ensures that we’re our own worst enemy. But some psychologists suggest a certain kind of procrastination might actually be beneficial.

There are two types of procrastinating: active and passive. Passive procrastination is just your regular method of putting things off, because you’re too lazy, or anxious, or afraid of failure to actually get to them. This, unfortunately, is what the majority of us resort to when deadlines are looming.

But active procrastination, or rather, “purposeful delay” involves deciding to delay the work until a certain point when the pressure can be a useful motivator that might actually lead to better results.Studies show that active procrastinators have more in common with non-procrastinators than passive ones. The difference is that active procrastinators prefer to work under pressure, using tight deadlines, self-efficacy, and intensified focus to achieve the same or better results than they would have, had they started the work beforehand.

In his research, Frank Partnoy, author of the book, Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, found that the two-step process of (a) asking oneself what is the longest amount of time one can go without responding to whatever looms, and (b) delaying the response until the last moment, is used by professional athletes, academics, even the military. In that last moment, with pressure at its peak, some people are able to take better, smarter decisions after having had the time to weigh all their options. Waiting until the last possible millisecond to make a decision may actually help rather than hurt, because it means you can take the time to collect information and review each possible outcome.


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During the delay itself, it’s not unlikely that your mind will be subconsciously working on ideas before you actually sit down to complete the task. Jihae Shin, now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, conducted an experiment where participants were asked to generate business ideas. Half had to start working on the submission immediately, while the other half were allowed to play Solitaire or Minesweeper for five minutes before beginning their work.

When independent evaluators rated the ideas, they found the procrastinators’ ideas were 28 percent more creative. Shin’s professor at the Wharton School at the time of the experiment, Adam Grant, went on to give a talk about how creativity is actually fostered during the time we call ‘procrastination.’ He suggests people who work better under pressure should review the parameters around their work before delaying its completion, in order to give the brain time to process ideas even as it is ostensibly procrastinating with something else.

If it’s true that, as Henry Miller puts it, “Life, as it is called, is for most of us one long postponement,” then it’s in our interest to learn how best to manage delay. We will always have a running, infinite ‘to-do’ list. To maximize our time and energy, then, we must prioritize, figure out what task will take what amount of time — including the procrastination of it, when it means getting a better result in the end. (Just know that despite all the research, there’s no real way to justify sitting on your sofa watching TV instead of sending that email. That’s passive procrastination, which is clearly not helpful to anyone.)

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Written By Nadia Nooreyezdan

Nadia Nooreyezdan is The Swaddle’s culture editor. Since graduating from Columbia Journalism School, she spends her time thinking about aliens, cyborgs, and social justice sci-fi. She’s also working on a memoir about her family’s journey from Iran to India.

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