Why procrastination isn’t (always) bad

“I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of procrastination, creative and dogged in my approach to not getting things done.”

Susan Orlean, journalist, author and staff writer for The New Yorker

We all do it. Industry leaders, undergraduate students, creatives, executives, technicians and salespeople. You may even be doing it right now.

When faced with a big project, a lengthy report to read, a complex client conversation… we put it off. No matter how many helpful screening systems we employ (the Freedom app, for example, can disable all of your social media tools for a specified time), it’s human nature to find distractions amidst the call of focused work.

So is procrastination always the thief of time? When the working world first embraced the internet, its perceived impact on employee productivity was overwhelmingly negative.

Facebook and other social networking sites were blocked as matter of course, and using your computer for personal chores within working hours was a covert practice, and a potentially sackable offence.

As the Internet Century has moved on, so too has our understanding of what worker efficiency looks like, at least in the world of the smart creative. Flexible hours and the ‘always-on’ reality of working life has changed how we see the division of work and home. It’s now far more integrated than before.

But time-wasting is still time-wasting, right? Not necessarily. Daniel Levitin writes in The Organized Mind about the switch our brains make between the ‘central executive’ — the fully focused prefrontal cortex which is actively engaged in a task — and the daydreaming state when our attention wanders.

Our desire for productivity isn’t always best served by plunging into work. If we confront that complex task head on — what Adam Grant referred to in a TED talk as pre-crastination — we miss the opportunities that arise when our brains wander in a contemplative state.

“procrastination gives you time to consider divergent ideas, to think in nonlinear ways, to make unexpected leaps.”

Allowing yourself time to switch between focused attention and daydreaming (and yes, that includes going completely off topic — YouTube surfing, inbox clearing, Words With Friends, a run or walk…), you can make the difference between pinging an instant and possibly ill-advised comeback to a problematic email, and crafting a thoughtful and constructive response. Or just about getting your report in on time, or creating something really worthwhile.

Of course, if you’ve allowed time to watched the entirety of Netflix, eaten your own body weight in pretzels, and run out of tweets — it may be time to get back to your desk and just grind out the words.

For some truly inspirational work-deferment, watch a procrastination connoisseur. Tim Urban’s funny and enlightening TED talk takes you Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator.

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