Should we fight against procrastination?

Maybe it’s more important than we realise.

Last week I was interviewed by Madeline Dore of Extraordinary Routines for her article on how to procrastinate properly and a second piece on sleep (coming out soon). The topics of procrastination and sleep are important to consider, particularly given the ubiquitous life hack and efficiency culture that so many of us wrestle with.

An example — a few years ago I briefly met an up-and-coming tech entrepreneur in Melbourne (who is now in Silicone Valley running a startup). We chatted about how to make big things happen and have an impact and measure your success. He was doing some pretty cool stuff, so I asked, “what are some of your techniques?” He proudly showed me his diary. He explained how he planned, and then accounted for every ten minutes of his day. I was shocked and felt uneasy — everything was controlled. I unloaded a stream of questions. “How on earth is that feasible? What if you get an unexpected phone call? What if you are tired? Need to go for a walk to clear your head? What if you have kids? What if you feel the whisper of an idea or whim? What if you get stuck in traffic? What about room for serendipity? What if you bump into an old friend on the street?”. To which he said, “I stick to the plan. If I bump into someone, I don’t stop what I’m doing, I just schedule a meeting with them. I don’t care if I’m blunt. I make my plan work. Using my time like this, I get hours and days back — that’s time that other people squander. My approach, it’s a game changer.

He was clearly empowered by this approach (though, interestingly, extremely frustrated with his colleagues because none of them micromanaged their time the same way, and he was constantly being put out). I wondered whether I could be that efficient with my time, and whether it was even be a good thing?

Procrastination has always played a BIG part in my life. For years I beat myself up for wandering, staring out the window, taking a nap, walking too slowly, daydreaming, for starting creative explorations that weren’t related to my project, for spending a little time gardening or folding laundry when I really should be back at the computer finishing that essay. However, over time, I have found that if I force myself to stay locked to a task, when my body and mind are itching for a breather, I often take longer to accomplish the task or come to a decision. There is something powerful about constructive, self-aware procrastination.

Since discovering that procrastination could be constructive for me, I found there is actually research that supports this. In her article on why your brain is wired to wander, senior researcher officer Muireann Irish, from Neuroscience Research Australia writes, “daydreaming facilitates creative problem solving, such as that “eureka” moment in the shower. Research on creativity has pointed to the importance of distractions during demanding tasks, to facilitate a creative period of incubation.” We are repeatedly told that daydreaming is a waste, but the ability to daydream offers us tremendous power and flexibility in our daily lives.

From a clinical and evolutionary perspective, research associate Parashkev Nachev explains why our slow and uncertain brains are better than computers because of the sloppiness of our wetware reaction times. “The brain deliberately procrastinates, even if we ask it to do otherwise. Unlike computers, our brains are massively parallel in their organisation, concurrently running many millions of separate processes. They must do this because they are not designed to perform a specific set of actions but to select from a vast repertoire of alternatives. Its procrastination is of a virtuous kind, born of a deep scepticism of advance planning, of prematurely foreclosing any option before an action is due. Evolutionary survival is a long game, and one whose only reliable rule is that there are no other reliable rules.”

So I wonder, rather than trying to be overly efficient with life hacks and fighting against procrastination, we might actually benefit from harnessing the power of doing it constructively, with self-awareness. Observe yourself and start to see what type of procrastination is useful. Maybe you do need to take that walk, do that doodle, fold those socks, stare out the window.

As they say, “don’t just do something, sit there.”

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