The Power of Procrastination

I was always a decent student; it wasn’t until I learned to procrastinate that I started to excel.

Yes you read that right. Procrastination is the harbinger of creativity; the provider of insight. It is often the difference between success and mediocrity. Had I not learned to procrastinate, indeed, to turn procrastination into an art form, I would not be where I am today. Procrastination can take credit for my PhD. Procrastination made me an executive at Google. Procrastination is the reason I have the word ‘Distinguished’ in my Microsoft title.

Procrastination isn’t just not bad. It’s the most underrated modern career skill out there and those who fail to embrace it, or worse, spend time berating themselves for it, will have a tougher climb to the top. The modern world is no place for the over prepared and meticulously organized. The world you think you are preparing for will have changed into something else long before you are finished preparing for it. The work you are organizing so obsessively will be irrelevant before it is fully organized. There is too much to know now and more things to know are springing up constantly. How can anyone navigate this world of knowledge overload?

The answer lies in procrastination and how it trains you to know only what you need to know only for the time you need to know it. Procrastination is the just-in-time preparation strategy for a just-in-time world. And lest you fear you are arriving late to the procrastination bandwagon, relax. That’s the great thing about procrastination, whatever time you have remaining is the exact amount of time you need.

Procrastination creates pressure

People who don’t procrastinate live in a fairy world. They plan ahead. They organize their notes after every lecture and pursue action items after every meeting. Homework is completed far in advance and life progresses with a predictability that, well, just isn’t real. Failure to procrastinate is tantamount to rejecting the world as it actually exists.

You see, homework isn’t assigned in the real world. You don’t get advance notice of when things are due. Deadlines pop up without announcing themselves. There are market pressures, competitive pressures, personal pressures, team dynamics, technology glitches and any number of things that make preparation either impossible or a huge waste of time. You either drive yourself crazy preparing for everything or you learn to deal with the pressure created by the uncontrollable and the unforeseen.

Procrastination creates artificial pressure which trains you to deal with real pressure during your career. Every good job and most of the decent ones are performed under pressure. Procrastinators become familiar with pressure. They learn to expect its presence and treat it as just another variable to consider. Procrastinators learn to contol panic. They are rarely surprised and develop improvisational skills the envy of any actor. Embrace the life of a procrastinator so you too can develop this keen ability to perform under pressure.

Procrastination requires prioritization

People who don’t procrastinate have more time to learn. This extra time means they can get more of a subject into their head than procrastinators who, by definition, wait too long to learn any subject completely. Simply put, people who don’t procrastinate learn more.

Learning more necessarily means learning things that don’t matter. It means spending time on things that are important and things that are not as important. People who don’t procrastinate don’t have to differentiate between the two. They have time to learn it all, or at least most of it. So they end up filling up valuable neural real estate on things that just don’t matter.

But the procrastinator has the advantage of a compressed time schedule and this means they have no choice but to prioritize. The procrastinator is forced to focus on only the most important parts of any subject. The procrastinating brain doesn’t have to make room for the unimportant stuff and can use its full capacity to learn all the really necessary parts more completely. It is only through thorough and repeated procrastination that one masters this prioritization.

The ability to pick apart a problem and find its most important parts is a crucial modern career skill. Procrastinating is a great way to obtain this skill and teaches us to learn the important parts of any subject first.

Procrastination promotes insight

People who don’t procrastinate aren’t incentivized to create shortcuts. Why bother when you have so much time on your hands? Procrastinators, however, feel this shortcut incentive strongly and it creates perfect conditions for insight to flourish.

My own procrastination led to an insight that regularly had me racking up A grade after A grade with mere minutes on the hour for study time. My goal was simple: study only the material that was likely to be on the exam. My insight was that two factors indicate topic’s likelihood of landing on an exam: the amount of time a professor spends lecturing on that topic and the amount of interest the professor displays during those lectures. Topics that got a lot of air time and that were delivered with some enthusiasm would feature prominently on exams. Of course, the same can be said of the corporate worker. The things the CEO talks about most and displays the most enthusiasm for are important. Working on things important to the CEO is really good for your career.

This strategy honed my power of prioritization, focused my cram time and provided a systematic way to study the material at hand. If there is one thing a procrastinator is good at, it’s coming up with a system.

Knowing what to study was only the beginning. Instead of just poring over the material trying to cram it into my head, I went through it and created exam questions of my own. More often than not I could get close enough to the actual exam questions to give me a decided advantage over even the staunchest non-procrastinator. After the exam, of course, procrastinator and non-procrastinator alike would forget large volumes of information (why we insist on teaching students things they don’t need to know isn’t tackled here). It’s just that the stuff I forgot was all important enough to justify its temporary neural real estate. Whereas much of the stuff the non-procrastinators forgot never needed to be learned in the first place.

Now who is the time waster here? Certainly not the procrastinator.

Procrastination saves time

Cram time is the best time to study simply because it is last minute and there is no time to forget anything. Nor is there any need to re-study anything you committed to memory days or weeks earlier because you didn’t know anything days or weeks earlier. That was when you were procrastinating!

Procrastination means that your knowledge is fresh. That new-car smell is still wafting around your tidy and uncluttered frontal lobe. The pages of your books and notes will be fresh in your memory ready to be recalled during the exam. When the inevitable post-exam knowledge flush occurs there is no reason to be sentimental about it because it was more of a one night stand with that knowledge rather than a proper relationship.

Procrastination is the preparation ritual

Study rituals among non-procrastinators often start weeks in advance. Rewriting notes, re-doing homework, making flash cards and rereading chapters puts the mind on notice much as pre-game rituals put an athlete’s muscles on notice. The message: it’s almost game time!

This is another huge advantage for procrastinators. We put our brains on notice much closer to game time. Our brains don’t have to anticipate game days for days or weeks in advance. Such a prolonged ritual is tiring. The anticipation is stressful. The adrenaline and passion is harder to maintain over such a stretch of time. Procrastinators follow much closer to the athlete model where maximum alertness is obtained right when you need it most, just as you enter the field of play.

Procrastination is the ritual. It eases the mind into its game day ritual so that it is ready when the starting whistle blows.

In Parting

Over the course of your lifetime you will learn and forget vast volumes of information. You will acquire and later release reams of knowledge. Much of what you are learning now will not be useful tomorrow. This is the world that exists today. Denying this reality will make success that much harder.

Ensuring that you learn the most impactful things and know them at the most important times is what will make you successful. Procrastination is the path to prioritizing what you need to know and retaining it for the time period in which you need to know it.

What are you waiting for? Start procrastinating today.