I’ll tell you all about the downsides of procrastination later. When I get around to it.
Seriously, indecisiveness can be bad. Indecisiveness can also lead to better choices and better results. To discern which it is, we must understand why we may be waiting to make a decision.
If you find yourself chronically putting off difficult tasks you know you should tackle, then you’ll find this path leads to the loss of time, the loss of respect of co-workers and family, and it can cost you in results. Perhaps when you are in a situation where you don’t enjoy or admire your work, you have to force yourself to push forward. When that happens, Paul Graham suggests, “the results are distinctly inferior.”
However, if you are doing work you enjoy and still worry that you are indecisive, Graham and others see us making better choices with more creative outcomes by waiting for a more deliberate answer. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says, “You call it procrastination, I call it thinking.”
“There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.
That’s the ‘absent-minded professor,’ who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.
That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.
What’s ‘small stuff?’ Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It’s hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there’s a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out…”
I sometimes find myself filling up a to-do list and checking off the boxes to convince myself I’m not procrastinating. (That’s Graham’s type-b procrastination listed above.) Or I rip through a project and finish it early. Again, I convince myself I’m not procrastinating. But as Wharton School professor Adam Grant notes, “Our first ideas, after all, are usually our most conventional.” He notes in an essay entitled Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate, “My natural need to finish early was a way of shutting down complicating thoughts that sent me whirling in new directions. I was avoiding the pain of divergent thinking — but I was also missing out on its rewards.”
Truth be told, I have had a first draft of this post in my box for over a month. In that time, as I read various articles on the topic and thought about what I wanted to say (i.e., procrastinated), one of the clearest thoughts I’ve found came from Richard Hamming, who asks the simple question: “What is the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?” If we’re focused on that — even while daydreaming — there’s a better-than-average chance that we’re a “good procrastinator.”
Have a better-than-average week.
More to come…