The Art of Procrastination

In my experience, there are two types of procrastinators.  (There are also people who don’t procrastinate at all, but who work according to timelines or time-budgets or something.  I don’t really know how they operate, so I won’t discuss them here.)

  1. Those who know how to do it well.
  2. Those who don’t.

If you belong to the second group, you may find your life characterized by exams failed due to lack of preparation, weekends without plans because everyone else is already booked up, diseases past the possibility of treatment because you didn’t get to the doctor, and a lack of clean teacups.  I would recommend that you either work on your technique, or apprentice yourself to one of the time-budget people.

Not to brag or anything, but I belong to the first group.

As a young Stephanie, I would beat myself up about my procrastination habit.  (The education system is partially designed to help young people learn whether they are or are not of the procrastinating persuasion.  The prevailing prejudice is in favour of those who are not.)  Here was a typical scenario:

A paper would be due.

Three nights before due date – I sit with my books and stare at them.  Then I sharpen all my pencils.  Then I phone a friend.  Then I make some tea.  Then I observe the way that sugar cubes dissolve in tea.  Then I make sculptures out of candle wax.  Then I stare at my books for a few hours more.  Then it is late and time to sleep and I lie in bed, tired but awake, beating myself up for not making more productive use of the evening and feeling stressed that I will not finish this paper in time.

Two nights before due date – Perhaps I write an introductory sentence, but basically just more of the same.

Night before due date –  Much wasting of time going on.  In the realization that the due date of this paper is upon me, I can no longer waste time on frivolous activities, so instead I do things that are also important (ideally unpleasant – procrastination must not be enjoyed!) but that would otherwise be put off until a much later time, such as scrubbing out the bathtub.  Inevitably though, after a couple of hours of this, my brain hits a moment where it suddenly clicks and says, “You must work now.  No more dilly-dallying.”  And the thing gets done.  On time.  And I do great on it.  Every single time.

So here is my argument: procrastination, when performed properly, is not evidence of a character flaw.  Rather, it is a symptom of an extremely brilliant sense of time-management.  Somehow, I know the exact moment that I must apply myself to something to have it done well and in a timely manner.  And my brain stubbornly resists beginning it a second before.

I did try for a long time to be one of the timeline crew.  Occasionally I was able to beat my brain into submission and do things parts at a time over the space of several days.  Yes, it was a little less stressful in some ways, but that work was never as good, probably because I had the leisure time to second-guess the shit out of it.  (That’s right.  Give me a situation, any situation, and I will show you how to make it stressful.  Workshops every Tuesday at 7:30.  See you there.)

Once I realized that I was actually just a gifted time-manager and not a budding failure, I gave up on the extra nights of pencil sharpening and sugar cube dissolving.  (If you’ve never done the sugar cube thing though, give it a go.  It’s kind of cool.  But five minutes is really plenty for a lifetime.)  Now, I choose to enjoy my free time, guilt-free.  I just listen carefully to my inner clock and when it says go, I go.

So the next time you think I should be doing something I’m not, have a bit of faith.  You’re dealing with a master.

2 thoughts on “The Art of Procrastination

  1. YES!
    For me, procrastination is also about perfectionism. I’d prefer to spend time gathering information and letting ideas percolated in my subconscious for as long as possible. Then, when I actually sit down to write (it’s usually about writing), there is a mostly complete product ready to ooze out of my fingers. It’s pretty amazing. And my timing is uncanny! I’ve been trying lately to spend less time and energy in the “what I should be doing” zone, and use that time to go swimming or have a nap so that I’m well rested for my inevitable all-nighter.

    • Exactly. And using the not-dawdled-away time effectively or, at the very least, restfully is absolutely an all-important aspect of making proper use of your procrastination skills.

      Part of me wonders whether I should be encouraging this technique though, since I’m not entirely certain that it is a learnable skill. It may be one of those instincts that you are born with or you aren’t. I know the part that I honed was the “not wasting time thinking about doing the work” rather than the inner clock which I think is the key to success here. Thoughts?

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