As anyone with a Twitter handle or eBay bookmark can attest, we live in a golden age of procrastination. Technology gives us unfettered access to information and communication, which in turn makes the siren song of putting things off only more impossible to drown out.
Now, researchers suggest that wasting a little bit of time here and there can actually be good. When employed correctly, procrastination helps us think creatively and make informed decisions.
And hey, it worked for ancient Romans and Greeks. Back then, power players who did nothing but think all day were revered for their wisdom, according to Frank Portnoy, author of the book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. It wasn’t until the Puritans came along, hatching such catchy ditties as “a stitch in time saves nine,” that procrastination was vilified.
Curious about how to transform your tendency to procrastinate into productivity? Consider these four strategies.
Be an active procrastinator. When faced with an impending deadline, do you find yourself running inessential errands or wondering if now might be the perfect time to renew your car insurance? If so, you’re an active procrastinator — and that’s not a bad thing.
In The Art of Procrastination, Stanford professor John Perry explores the surprisingly productive side to this behavior.
“If you had done the assigned task first, you might have called it a day and not accomplished anything else,” Perry explained. It may seem like you’re idly filling your time; but, by knocking out those extra to-dos, active procrastinators build momentum towards their ultimate goal.
Sadly, there is a negative flip side of productive frittering: passive procrastination. And it’s a doozy. By sitting on the couch, watching Netflix and scrolling through your ex-girlfriend’s brother-in-law’s Instagram feed, you aren’t positioning yourself to (eventually) feel relaxed and focused. You’re just wasting time and fostering an emotional petri dish of anxiety and guilt.
Trim the fat. A tight time frame forces you to be pretty ruthless, so waiting until the 11th hour can sometimes help you clarify your goal. There’s only time to tackle the most pressing elements, so inessential details and busywork fall by the wayside.
Obviously, this is a tricky note to hit. Planning to stress at the very last minute rarely leads to smart, successful results. However, if you happen to find yourself in a time crunch, it’s helpful to remember that all is not lost. You might actually be more efficient than if you’d started working weeks ago.
According to a 2001 study by Washington University neuroscientist Marcus Raichle, the “idle” brain is surprisingly active, requiring 20 times the metabolic resources of the engaged mind. As a result, the “resting-state circuity” is the ideal place to “park a problem, for it employs the best, wisest, and most creative… mechanics,” as Psychology Today noted.
Just like active procrastination, time and intention are key here. If you’re closing in on a deadline but you can afford to take 30 or 60 minutes off to do something seemingly mindless, you might actually reach your goal more quickly. If, however, you stop to reorganize your closet, then start up the car to take those unwanted clothes to a donation center four towns over, don’t expect to find yourself closer to your goal.
Manage your delays. In 2005, fresh off of a reading of Blink, Malcolm Gladwell’s ode to instantaneous decision-making, a group of Lehman Brothers executive made a rapid series of catastrophic financial plays.
This story inspired Wait author Frank Portnoy to research how other executives, athletes, and politicians made split-second decisions. He found that those who waited until the last minute tended to fare better than those making speedy, gut-check picks.
“Delay the response or the decision until the very last possible moment,” Portnoy advises. “If it’s a year, wait 364 days. If it’s an hour, wait 59 minutes.”
While delaying, the decision-maker has time to gather information, weigh options, and mediate any emotionally misleading initial reactions. In this case, procrastination is less about ignoring responsibility and more about making the most educated choice possible. Plus, in the 24-7 digital age, there is something comfortingly timeless about waiting until the clock has (almost) run out to log on and make a choice.