The science of productive procrastination

How slacking off with purpose can not only make you happier but more productive.

Stop procrastinating, or you’ll go blind. Or was it that it would put hair on my palms? Anyway, I’ve heard it a thousand times, and I’m sure you’ve heard the same. In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I was told to stop slacking off and get back to work, I’d have many, many dollars. But good news! Science went and thought about this most-common of time-wasting techniques, and the results are in. It turns out that active procrastination may not only be a good thing—but it could actually make you more productive.

That isn’t a typo. However, it didn’t require science to confirm this for we—the procrastinating elite. For those of us who have a handle on the time, we spend off-task—working on side-projects, creating new ideas, and developing relationships—we are quite often better for procrastinating. We spend our off-time doing the things we are usually most passionate about, not just the stuff we do to make a living. Procrastination may work for some of the geese, but it doesn’t mean that it’s great for the gander in all cases.

Photo by Юлія Вівчарик on Unsplash

Not all procrastinators are created equal

As in just about everything, no two people—or in this case, procrastinators—are alike. However, there are two simple buckets in which we can put them into for purposes of this conversation, understanding this topic isn’t so black and white. There are the active kind and the passive kind.

Active procrastinators are those who fill the time they should be using on something else, with something they genuinely enjoy. The passion projects, the side gigs, the startup companies, and so on. So while they may be guilty of putting off things that might be important to others—like employers, partners, friends, or family members—they are filling that time with productive things that make them happy.

Passive procrastinators, on the other hand, are the ones that put off important tasks, yet often engage in self-destructive behaviors. They are playing X-box, Netflix and chilling, or worse, doing nothing at all. They have all the negatives that come along with a procrastinator’s lifestyle with none of the upside. While the active’s aren’t entirely free of the dangers that can be associated with excessive procrastination, the passive’s are much more susceptible.

The downside

No matter the line of work, the mishandling of the p-word can be problematic. Especially in fields that thrive on creativity—or creative people anyway—as well as those who rely on detached resources working remotely, procrastination and its negative effects can get out of hand quickly. According to doctors Eugene YJ Tee and Choy Tsee Leng in their article 5 Dangers Of Procrastination And How You Can Beat It the following are five of many dangers threatening a poorly-managed procrastinator with commentary by yours truly:

  • Anxiety. For some, the obvious increase in stress incurred by deferring work can create a greater risk of mental health challenges in those prone to them. This added anxiety can negatively influence performance both at home and at work.
  • Fatigue. Procrastination can, as a result of putting off tasks, lead to the need to work late or more frequently to keep up at work. All those factors can lead to sleep deprivation, which in turn contributes to physical and mental exhaustion.
  • Lowered Self-Esteem. A common side effect of procrastination is underperformance at work, and it’s even more common for those working as a teammate apart. This poor performance can lead to feelings of self-doubt and worthlessness that kills self-esteem and squashes drive.
  • Damaged Relationships. A general lack of attention or sub-par performance at home and work can lead to missed deadlines, appointments, shortness, anger, and countless other emotions. Related outbursts and the overarching lack of care or concern that comes with a stressed out, overworked mind, can wear on both personal and professional relationships.
    The issue can be amplified when working off-site, outside the context of the physical workplace. Shortness, lack of communication, slow responses, and missed deadlines can lead to negative feelings, which can be easily misconstrued—or accurately construed, for that matter—by your employer that you aren’t focusing the appropriate attention on the team putting your position at risk.
  • Career Setbacks. There is no doubt that each of these bullets is related to and builds off of the others, so maybe it goes without saying. However, chronic procrastination can keep individuals from achieving their full, professional potential, which can lead to delays—or complete derailment, in the worst cases—of their careers.

But enough about that. I started this article with bells on, about to espouse the positive aspects of active procrastination, so let’s get back to that, shall we?

The upside

According to the super-smart folks over at Psychology Today—despite popular views to the contrary—procrastination is not just great for improving your happiness, but also your productivity. Whaaa?!

That’s right, and its great news for ” active” procrastinators! In an article called 6 Reasons Why Procrastination Can Be Good For You by Susanna Newsonen, the author lays out the following points supported by my two-bits:

  • Active procrastination makes you get more things done. Of course, that doesn’t mean you are getting the specific task you’re putting off done, however, the rest of your list is probably getting a keen once-over. Once you rock through everything that isn’t what you were supposed to be doing, I guess all that remains is to circle back and knock it out.
  • Unnecessary tasks disappear with procrastination. As an active procrastinator, it is not all that uncommon that you’ll blow something off long enough that you may even forget why it’s on your list. The good news, you can now actively evaluate if the task is still relevant or can safely be tossed out.
  • Procrastination shines a light on what’s most important to you. This is one of my favorites and truly speaks to why many of us are guilty of procrastination in the first place. “You are less likely to procrastinate on the things you love to do or that really matter to you,” according to Newsonen, and she’s right. At least in my experience. And you know what? Isn’t that what it’s all about? Life, that is. If you can’t indulge yourself now and again doing the things that bring you joy, then what’s the point?
  • Procrastination makes you more creative. For many a purveyor of creative work or those challenged with critical or creative thinking, I believe that sometimes merely putting something off and taking a quick constitutional around the office can get the creative juices flowing. Newsonen says, “What you might not realize is that even when you’re not actively working on that task, your mind is subconsciously collecting ideas and processing things to prepare you for it. That means that when you actually sit down to get to it, you have a lot more ideas in your head on how to go about it.”

Ahh, what a relief! Now maybe I can shake the crushing despair I feel when I’m judged for putting things off every so often. After all, it’s just part of my process! It’s clear that much like anything in moderation, the procrastination you are likely chastised for might be doing more good than harm. Good luck getting your boss to buy in though!

Are you procrastinating right now?

Are you reading this article while you put off something else in hopes of finding inspiration? I hope so. More importantly, I hope it was worth it. If you’re looking to kill another minute or two, please get involved in the conversation. I’d love to hear about how you deal with procrastination in your career.

Join me here in the comments or feel free to find me on the socials to take this conversation wherever the audience most suited to hear it can get involved - I am @ryanroghaar on Medium, Twitter, and Instagram.