When Procrastination Works

In our hyper-productive society, procrastination is considered a problem to cure or a bad Landscapehabit to break. Countless books including The Now Habit and Eat That Frog discuss ways to stop procrastinating and get things done quickly.

When you have limitless things to accomplish, it’s hard to avoid procrastination altogether.

The key is to understand the benefits of delaying action and when it works best.

The term “procrastination” comes from a Latin verb, procrastinare, which means to put off or postpone until another day. It is comprised of two words – pro for “forward motion” and crastinus “for belonging to tomorrow.” Negatively defined, it means postponing action out of habitual carelessness or laziness when early action is preferable.

Not all delay, however, is (negative) procrastination.


Focus on more important and meaningful things.

Take time to think strategically about what tasks you truly need to do and when you really need to do them. Resistance might be your intuition telling you that the task isn’t that important or urgent.

Delay low priorities to make room for higher-value activities.  Don’t get bogged down with emails, telephone calls and day-to-day urgencies when you’re in the midst of creative problem-solving work.

Build momentum to work on your very important task.

Philosopher John Perry notes that through “structured procrastination,” you can get a lot done by postponing the work you are supposed to be doing. He notes that having a task at the top of your to-do list can sap your motivation to do it.

So, as Perry advises, give in to your inclination to procrastinate by putting your very important task on hold. Then, instead of engaging in time-wasting activities, begin a different task that requires attention. Ultimately, both assignments get done, just in a different order. In the meantime, you build momentum that makes it easier to work on your very important task.

Avoid unpleasant work that proves to be unnecessary.

Sometimes the best way to tackle a dreadful task is to deal with it quickly. The consequences might get worse if you keep putting it off.

At other times, the task is really a bad idea or belongs in the someday/maybe pile. And with no effort from you, the issue could resolve itself, end up getting solved by others, or become irrelevant.

Achieve a better outcome.

Putting things off does not always lead to substandard results. When you give yourself too much time to complete a project, you might waste hours focusing on trivial issues.

In some cases, delay can increase the likelihood of successful completion. Fast and good enough often beats slow and perfect.

Fully engage in the creative process.

Shifting into overdrive or operating at warp speed can lead to burnout. Breaking from busy work is integral to the creative process. You might need to catch a nap, engage in idle conversation, or take a nature walk to allow an idea to percolate.

Some breakthrough insights arise only after you step away from the project.  Although you might have put off the actual task, you are better prepared to complete it effectively.

Capitalize on your natural instincts.

Hesitation can be your inner wisdom informing you that you need to wait. Right timing is usually just as important as hard work. Make room for your internal rhythms instead of relying purely on external pressures to dictate your direction.

Pause to think about why you’re putting something off. Do you have writer’s block because the subject is no longer right for you? Are you slow to respond to a client’s email because you really don’t want his business and need to stop working with him?


Thrive under pressure.

If you have a good sense of how long a task will take and you enjoy the focused energy of delivering just in time, plan to work at the 11th hour. Clear your schedule, eliminate distractions, and reserve buffer time to complete the thing right before it’s due.

Produce superior-quality work on time if you are forced into action.

You might need to play around with a difficult question before you resolve it. Mulling over an issue can lead to more creative solutions. When you finally get around to doing the actual work, you are highly engaged with it and deliver high-quality, timely results.

Derive tremendous motivation from looming deadlines. 

Working at the last moment can fire you up to do your best. If postponing things right before the deadline doesn’t make you ill, but instead provides the necessary stimulation for you to act, procrastination can be positive.

According to American positive psychologist Robert Biswas-Diener, true procrastinators are those who may never start projects, leave projects half finished, or produce mediocre results when then they do complete projects.

He says those who flourish under pressure, produce superior-quality work on time, and get energized by deadlines when they delay tasks are not really procrastinators, but “incubators.” They deliver the goods even when they do things at the last minute.

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When procrastination is beneficial, enjoy it and let go of the guilt. When you choose to procrastinate, update your deadlines and commitments and communicate with those who are affected by your delay.

Keep delivering on your promise so your colleagues, clients and others who are counting on you can expect great results on time, even when they prefer you to do things sooner.


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Photo by: The U.S. National Archives