Purposeful procrastination: When putting things off helps productivity

I've been thinking about writing this blog for a couple of months now. Originally I had it planned for early January, but I put it off for a while.

Does this mean I'm a chronic procrastinator? Am I inefficient and unable to finish projects? Or, perhaps, is there a form of 'purposeful procrastination' that can actually help with productivity, creativity and innovation?

Talk to any of your colleagues and the majority of them will think it's a bad trait in relation to getting stuff done. And sure, there are those chronic procrastinators who leave everything (proposals, assignments, budgets, meeting agendas, etc) until the very last minute and cause stress and tension for everyone.

(Thinking back on my uni days – whenever I had a major assignment due this was always the perfect time to clean my bedroom, bathroom, garage, car, mow the lawns and even put in the claim for all those travel expenses that had been sitting there for six months. Sound familiar?)

An unexpected strength

But there are also those workers who do everything straight away. They are very diligent and will respond to the email, the request, the question, the report as soon as they receive it. And while they are quick in their response and never leave things until the last minute, chances are they never really set the world on fire, either. They just seem to 'do' their job.

The more I've thought about it, the more I think the right type of procrastination can be a strength. Let me give you an example: I had a proposal that was due early last week and I had been sitting on it for nearly a fortnight. But during that time I was thinking about some of the questions in the scope, how we could create an innovative approach to what they were looking for, and subconsciously I'm sure it was bubbling away as well.

I sat down the day before the proposal was due and in 90 minutes wrote an entirely new way of delivering our Personal Best program, and even if I do say so myself, it was one of the best proposals I have ever put together – in only 90 minutes.

Practising positive procrastination

Positive procrastination worked for me. If I had put this proposal together as soon as I received the brief, it would have been nowhere near as creative.

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Dr Tom Buckley has contributed to more than 70 publications in peer-reviewed medical journals and book chapters, and is a senior lecturer/researcher in Acute and Critical Care Nursing at the University of Sydney.

"For me, purposeful procrastination is really a form of active procrastination, and I find it enhances my work performance," he says.

"Active delay is an intentional decision to delay something to make better use of immediate time, so I'm in effect prolong thinking time, often longer than others would in similar situations.

"With doing research and thinking of new concepts, I find it is really beneficial to have time to reflect, think and review and then come back to the project with a fresh lens - sometimes at the 11th hour, I have to admit.

"This contrasts with what we commonly call procrastination, often seen as a form of self-regulatory failure by those who like to prepare long in advance. Therefore, purposeful procrastination is not necessarily negative procrastination, but rather a form of positive and purposeful delay, until I have all of the information I need and am ready to fully engage."

When the time is right

Geoff Rimmer, the executive general manager of Trustee & Wealth Services at Equity Trustees, is another believer in 'the right type of procrastination'.

"I don't see waiting for inspiration, or walking when others want to run, as procrastination. Some of my best deliveries and business transactions have benefited from timing. On reflection, if I had moved any sooner, the outcome would not have been much better, but it could have been much worse."

Researchers have also identified benefits associated with purposeful procrastination - perhaps ironically, though, they still haven't made a decision about what to call it. Seriously.

Make a list, check it twice

Dr John Perry, a philosopher at Stanford University and author of The Art of Procrastination (a book he jokes took him 17 years to complete) was a typical self-loathing procrastinator until it dawned upon him that he wasn't anywhere near as lazy as he first thought.

"The key to productivity is to make more commitments – but to be methodical about it. At the top of your to-do list put a couple of daunting, if not impossible tasks that are vaguely important sounding (but really aren't) and seem to have deadlines (but really don't). Then further down the list, include some doable tasks that really matter. With this appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done."

In summary: Procrastination is putting off tasks that you have to do. Purposeful procrastination is the art of making this trait work for you. Giving yourself extra time to think and reflect can result in much better outcomes.

Purposeful procrastinators of the world unite. Go forth and, um ... actually, don't do anything for a while.

Do you procrastinate with purpose? Has this blog helped you to view your to-do list differently?

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