“How to Build a Life” is a weekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his new podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
Are you putting something off by reading this article? Maybe it’s finishing your Christmas shopping. Or making a confrontational phone call. Or writing your fall term papers.
Social scientists define procrastination as “delaying a task for a maladaptively long time,” and it bedevils almost all of us. One study found that more than 70 percent of university students procrastinate on their schoolwork. More than 20 percent of adults in a 2005 survey were found to be “chronic procrastinators.”
Procrastination gets a bad rap. And indeed, putting off necessary, routine responsibilities will make your work pile up and is almost always detrimental to your well-being. But deployed strategically with certain creative tasks, a little procrastination can actually be beneficial. So pay your electric bill and do the dishes right now. But you might want to put off that writing assignment for a day or two.
Procrastination is typically thought of as a time-management issue. But Timothy Pychyl, a psychologist at Carleton University, in Canada, argues that it’s more an issue of emotion management. He notes that many people cope with negative feelings surrounding a task or responsibility by simply avoiding the task, at least temporarily. You have probably experienced this if you have put off a difficult conversation and justified it by saying, “I can’t deal with this right now.”
Whether it’s a failure to manage time or emotions, in this view procrastination is still painted as a negative. And in many cases it is: Approximately 7 million Americans fail to file their taxes in an average year, for example, which can be financially and legally ruinous. Or consider that many employers think of procrastination as a professional liability, which is why you are unlikely to crack a joke about your tendency to miss deadlines during a job interview.
However, research shows that in certain circumstances, procrastination can improve the quality of our decisions and work. As Adam Grant notes in his book Originals, in ancient Egypt, procrastination was described with two different words: “One denoted laziness; the other meant waiting for the right time.” In this view, procrastination could indicate the vice of sloth or the virtue of prudence.
In fact, you can suffer from not procrastinating at least a little in many situations, and doing things in too much of a hurry can reflect its own form of maladaptive emotional management. Sometimes people “pre-crastinate,” rushing into tasks because they are impatient to lower their cognitive load. In other words, they want to get something off their plate, even at the risk of making mistakes and expending more effort in the end to correct them.
Procrastination and pre-crastination are not mutually exclusive. In one experiment from 2015, M.B.A. students at the University of Chicago got to choose between immediately collecting a check for a certain amount of money or waiting two weeks to collect a check for a larger amount. Most of the participants who chose the lower amount then procrastinated more than two weeks before cashing the check, thus nullifying the benefit of getting it sooner.
Probably the greatest cost of pre-crastination—and, conversely, the greatest benefit of moderate procrastination—comes in creativity. Scholars have found that putting off tasks that require innovation and research in order to mull them over can lead to better performance. In a study published earlier this year, two psychologists asked participants in an experiment to solve various business problems, while tempting them to procrastinate. They found that those who procrastinated moderately (an average of almost eight minutes) had ideas that were more creative than those of the participants who performed the task after procrastinating for just a bit longer than one minute or for 12 minutes.
Procrastination can be slothful or prudent, a vice or a virtue, depending on your habits and the tasks at hand. Here are five tips for putting off the right things in the right way.
1. Diagnose yourself.
While strategic, occasional procrastination can be beneficial, chronic procrastination is a problem. To find out if you suffer from it, ask yourself whether the way you delay tasks makes you feel out of control or unhappy. Do you skip time with friends and family on the weekends to do work that you should have done during the week? Are you pulling all-nighters when you have plenty of time during the day to finish your work?
2. Work on your mindfulness.
If you answered yes to the questions above, try working on your mindfulness. Researchers have found that being mentally present, as opposed to thinking about the future, is associated with better attention to tasks at hand and less tendency to put them off. Shifting your thinking to the here and now doesn’t require a month-long retreat at a Himalayan monastery, but rather a few practical techniques, such as separating yourself from distractions (more on this below) and making an effort to notice what you are doing.
3. Deploy procrastination strategically.
“Never put off till to-morrow what you can do day after to-morrow just as well,” Mark Twain wrote in an 1870 satirical essay. Twain may have been joking, but he hit on a very serious fact about creativity: It needs a little time. Not too much—just a little procrastination to let the ideas ferment. I have adopted the practice of waiting a day to start writing after having the initial idea for a project. I jot down my idea, think about it, sleep on it, go for a walk, and then start on it. If the writing is hard, I do the same thing all over. I don’t put it off for a week—just a day or two. Usually it flows nicely at that point; if it doesn’t, then I have to use a bit more force and just write.
4. Don’t fritter away your stalling.
Remember that putting off creative tasks is useful because it allows you to interrogate the ideas in your mind. It won’t work if you spend your period of procrastination doomscrolling. Mindless social-media and internet use not only wastes our procrastination time; it also feeds the habit. Research from 2018 shows that procrastination and internet use can become a vicious cycle: When you procrastinate, you go to a screen; the more you look at the screen, the more you procrastinate. If you are going to put off a task, go for a walk instead—an activity that has been shown to boost creativity.
For people who use the internet to work, avoiding useless procrastination can be an especially acute challenge, like trying to quit smoking while working in a cigarette factory. One solution some have put to good effect is to plan extended stretches of work that involve the screen but don’t rely on the internet—writing, for example. During these periods, leave your phone in another room and, if you can, turn off your internet connectivity, so that a wandering mind doesn’t wind up costing you 45 minutes in cat videos.
5. Leave tasks unfinished—but not stuck.
The biggest danger of procrastination is that a task will become permanently unfinished. I have a book manuscript that has been half-written since 2008. I paid back the advance long ago, when I realized that the publication date was never.
The key to avoiding this trap is to leave projects in a particular state of incompletion, such that picking them up again is easy. “The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next,” Ernest Hemingway once told an interviewer about his writing process. “If you do that every day when you are writing a novel you will never be stuck.” Research confirms that this is excellent advice. One study by Japanese researchers in 2018 showed that students who clearly saw the end of a task were more motivated to finish than those who didn’t.
To put this into practice, try the following: Instead of aiming to complete a full task each day, finish at approximately the 90 percent mark. Start the next day by finishing up and moving on to the next task, and repeat the pattern.
One more thing to consider: Perhaps you procrastinate on a particular task over and over, such as cutting your grass or writing Christmas cards, and none of this advice seems likely to help. In such a case, procrastination might not actually be your problem—you might simply hate this task because it makes you unhappy.
Your best option may be to avoid procrastination by avoiding the task entirely. You might be able to pay someone to cut your grass for you. You’ll lose some money, but the time you save will make you far happier, if you use it wisely. If you find that you really, truly hate writing Christmas cards, maybe you should just resolve to kill the whole tradition and connect with your loved ones in a way that feels more rewarding to you. Your procrastination, maladaptive as it may be, is actually giving you hints as to how you can be happier. It’s up to you to listen.