The Truth About Procrastination

To all my friends at EPRZ, I am back!

I have been intending to write this article for months, ever since I published my first in June 09. But why didn’t I write it? Because I have to practise what I preach. I have to do the things that I advise my readers to do. Today’s article discusses the benefits of good procrastination and there is no better way to validate its credibility than to use myself as the test subject. Here are the facts of my research.

As children, we were told by our parents to stop procrastinating and start working on our household chores. As students, we were told by our teachers to stop procrastinating and start working on our school assignments. And they would always use this popular saying, “the early bird catches the worm”, to support their argument. Fair enough. But what happens to the early worm? Doesn’t it get eaten? The truth of the matter is that procrastination can be good or bad depending on how you use it. So the important issue is not how you should avoid procrastination but how you should use procrastination to your advantage.

There are many activities that you could be doing now. All these activities are competing for your time and attention. How do you decide which activity to begin and which to postpone? Through objective evaluation, you will have to rate each activity in importance. After that, you will have to practice the principles of good procrastination- to learn when to do the right things and to postpone the wrong things. It means choosing to avoid lesser activities in favour of greater goals. If you have just been struck by a brilliant inspiration, for example, then you should work on that new idea and postpone the thought of running an errand for your parents. Learning to prioritise is, thus, the key to good procrastination.

During my absence from ERPZ, I have completed my National Service, organised several grassroots events, and earned my driving license among many other completed tasks. I have been using procrastination to my advantage by avoiding the less important activities to do the real work. And even though I have sacrificed the cleanliness of my room, the well-being of my stomach, and of course the welfare of the readers at ERPZ, I have accomplished much by practising good procrastination.

Most people will tell you that procrastination is bad and that you should avoid it or cure it. Their ill advice is predicated on the false belief that procrastination means doing absolutely nothing. Author Paul Graham writes that “there are three types of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on a) nothing, b) something less important, c) something more important.” The last type, good procrastination, is what you should strive for.

5 Comments

  1. Wei Seng says:

    Well, I guess you put a new positive spin to procrastination & downtime 🙂

  2. oneiros says:

    Unfortunately, I’m afraid you’ve confused procrastination with postponement of activity? I’ve always thought of procrastination as requiring three criteria: counterproductive, needless, and delaying (wikipedia) The only (conditional) argument I’ve found for procrastination comes from John Stuart Mill’s treatise on utilitarianism:

    “The main constituents of a satisfied life appear to be two, either of which by itself is often found sufficient for the purpose: tranquillity, and excitement. With much tranquillity, many find that they can be content with very little pleasure: with much excitement, many can reconcile themselves to a considerable quantity of pain. There is assuredly no inherent impossibility in enabling even the mass of mankind to unite both; since the two are so far from being incompatible that they are in natural alliance, the prolongation of either being a preparation for, and exciting a wish for, the other. It is only those in whom indolence amounts to a vice, that do not desire excitement after an interval of repose: it is only those in whom the need of excitement is a disease, that feel the tranquillity which follows excitement dull and insipid, instead of pleasurable in direct proportion to the excitement which preceded it.”

  3. Kevin says:

    Haha, I think there is no conflict between work and pleasure; but then pleasure derived from indefinite postponement of work is another story. I believe Martin is referring to a plan to work later rather than actual procrastination. If there’s ever any advantageous way of procrastinating, it’s to procrastinate your desire to slack.

  4. Martin See says:

    The main point of contention, brought up by oneiros, is the identity of procrastination vis-à-vis that of postponement.

    Postponement and procrastination are related concepts but they are not congruent. Translated from its original Latin roots, procrastination means “in favour of tomorrow”. While, postponement refers to changing an event or an activity to a later time or date, procrastination, in addition to encompassing the rough meaning of postponement, also includes the psychological aspects of such behaviour.

    You may be right in pointing out that procrastination strictly requires the behaviour to be counterproductive, needless, and delaying. I will have to leave that with the subject matter experts.

    The intent of the article was to remove the negative stigmas associated with procrastination by changing how readers perceive such behaviour. By changing their perceptions, hopefully, they may be able to use it to their advantage just as how people may turn their weaknesses into strengths. In other words, I want readers not to associate procrastination with the three above-mentioned criteria and instead, use it to better organise their lives.

    Think of it as self-deception for a good cause.

  5. oneiros says:

    Martin, “in favour of tomorrow” is not “performing x task at y time in the future” – it is “performing tasks in the never-arriving future”, since you pointed out its mathematically recursive definition (both in its original, and current form).

    Re-viewing things in a different light might be useful, or not: the reasons for procrastinating remains surprisingly few:
    1) You have better things to do at the moment
    2) You don’t feel like doing anything

    1) In attempting to validate procrastination, you have, instead, proven that the value of doing things in the future depends on the value of doing things in the now. You even hit upon the realisation yourself (in your post) in identifying it as being economic with your time: performing a cost-benefit analysis of all courses of action, and prioritising some over others based on the concept of opportunity cost, rather than of procrastination.

    2) Which brings me to my original point: either you’re in need of repose/tranquility (see earlier comment) or you’re “counterproductively, needlessly and dilatorily” putting off things (see (1) – being economically inefficient with your time)

    I’m sorry for coming off as pugnacious! I do enjoy opportunities to see things in a different light, but I do not see the goodness in this act of self-deception.

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