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the art of procrastination

It’s been sitting on the corner of your desk for the past two weeks. It’s a decision waiting to be made, a project waiting to be started, a feedback session waiting to be scheduled. You stare at it. Then leave for another meeting.

All of us procrastinate. Every human being does. In a society obsessed with speed, efficiency, and productivity, we always have more to do than we can possibly accomplish. The question is, “Are we procrastinating well?”

Procrastinating poorly is finally cleaning out the basement, but paying a late fee on the bill that was due today. Worse, procrastinating passively is numbing experience by surfing the web or watching television all while lying on the couch. These types of procrastinating are unquestionably problematic.

On the other hand, active procrastination – the art of delay – is an important skill. Procrastinating well is putting off shoveling the driveway or cleaning your file drawer by doing something that is more valuable. Active procrastination can improve our decision-making and better inform our actions.

What makes active procrastination beneficial? First, it stops the clock. What is the actual deadline? Understanding the timeframe allows for assessment: Am I asking the right questions? Do I have all of the data and information required? What have I experienced in the past that may be influencing my thoughts, beliefs, and feelings? How do my needs for certainty, approval, and belonging effect this?

Active procrastination allows us time and space to check our reality and intuitions. Our tendency to passively procrastinate may be unhealthy avoidance. Our need to constantly race quickly forward with decisions and projects may be supporting our need for control and certainty. Brené Brown states that slowing down allows us to trust ourselves and use intuition well, to “hold space for uncertainty and our willingness to trust the many ways we’ve developed knowledge and insight, including instinct, experience, faith, and reason.”1

Secondly, it allows for a delay in making the decision or taking action until the last possible moment. If there is one minute to the deadline, you have 59 seconds to make the choice, a month  – 29 days, a year – 364 days. The best athletes know to the millisecond how long to wait before hitting the ball. The best managers know how precisely how long to wait before offering feedback in order to have the maximum effect. The key is using the delay, the gap, to the best advantage.

For example, actively procrastinating until the last moment to offer feedback allows you and those you are interacting with to fully consider how the experience has affected you. It creates a space to understand the gap between where you are and where you want to be. The gap allows time for preparation: for insuring that our values and actions line up, listing contributions that are being made, identifying problems and growth areas, seeking options to support development.2

The psychologist Robert Sternberg says, “The essence of intelligence would seem to be in knowing when to think and act quickly, and knowing when to think and act slowly.”

Are you actively procrastinating: first stopping, then engaging the gap?

Notes and further reading:

1Brown, B. (2010). The Gifts of Imperfection. (p. 89). Penguin Group US.
2Brown, B. (2012). Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (p. 203). Penguin Group US..
Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting distinction. I like this language. It explains why I often feel behind but almost never miss a deadline. I try to be flexible with my own time and let things simmer as necessary. But I really respect promises I’ve made to others, which means I either renegotiate or produce on deadline. Or else my face is very red. 🙂

    March 17, 2014
    • Thank you, Shirley. I like the words “flexible,” “simmer,” and “respect.” These create and honor the gap … and reach the goal. And, sometimes my face is red too, although you have a copyright on the word, “Blush!” 🙂 -Kathleen

      March 17, 2014
  2. My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post’s to be what precisely I’m looking for.
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    September 18, 2014
    • I’m glad you enjoy the blog. I do not use guest writers. I look forward to your contributions via comments.

      October 9, 2014

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