No Such Thing as “Good Procrastination”

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article extolling the benefits of what the author calls “structured procrastination.” In “How to Be a Better Procrastinator” John Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University, says:

“But are procrastinators truly unproductive? In most cases, the exact opposite is true. They are people who not only get a lot done but have a reputation for getting a lot done. They don’t have neat desks or even neat desktops on their laptops. They spend a lot of time playing catch-up. But they are likely to be creative and on the whole amiable. After all, if you tend to keep people waiting, it makes them crabby; it doesn’t pay to make things worse by being crabby yourself.

“The truth is that most procrastinators are structured procrastinators. This means that although they may be putting off something deemed important, their way of not doing the important thing is to do something else. Like reading instead of completing their expense report before it’s due.”

I think he’s dead wrong.

His point may be valid among his academic colleagues and other high achievers, but that’s a relatively small fraction of the population. Over the past decade, I’ve spoken with hundreds of people, in diverse fields and from diverse backgrounds, about procrastination, and it’s clear that:

  1. Nearly everyone procrastinates in some area of his or her life. And,
  2. Procrastination is nearly always detrimental to a person’s professional and personal life, not to mention self-esteem and peace of mind.

The whole topic of “productive procrastination” is, in fact, a dangerous distraction. Procrastination lives and breathes denial — and so, while there are plenty of people who procrastinate via too much television, web surfing, videogames, and other patently low-value activities, there are many others who procrastinate via activities that are, or seem, productive. They might:

  • Work on less-important tasks instead of more-important ones;
  • Overdo one phase of their work (e.g., research) at the expense of others (e.g., writing or submitting work);
  • Help others with their work or personal problems at the expense of their own work or mission;
  • Overdo good works at the expense of their own work or mission; or, heaven forfend:
  • Bury themselves in housework and chores instead of tackling their important work or meaningful goals.

The consequences of these types of “procrastination as a mimic of productive work” may not be as dire as those of “procrastination via compulsive tv or videogaming,” but they are bad enough.

The primary purpose of productivity work is to get you to live consciously, in full awareness of your motives, so that you can align your actions as much as possible with your values. Dispensing with fictions such as “productive,” “good,” or “strategic” procrastination is an important step.

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