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In Defense of Procrastination

April 12, 2006

Tags Philosophy and Methodology

Most years, the millions of last minute tax filers make April 15 National Procrastination Day. This year, procrastinators can stall even longer, because April 15 falls on a weekend, pushing the deadline to April 17 (April 18 in states celebrating Patriot's Day on the 17th). But those honoring this unofficial holiday feel guilty about it. That guilt is not necessary, however, because procrastination is often efficient.

Procrastination opportunities arise with every unpleasant task we must do, like income taxes (or paying bills, preparing paperwork, returning calls we expect to be unpleasant, etc.). Viewing such tasks as onerous, we creatively discover other things that suddenly need doing first. But this can be efficient, if we harness our stalling for useful purposes.

Efficient or productive procrastinators are those who justify delay by working on important things they "always wanted to do," but never found time for. They make procrastination a force for social good, producing added efforts elsewhere, then giving way to a sense of duty or guilt that motivates them to finish what they worked so hard to put off.

Productively harnessed procrastination broadens our hori­zons, inspiring us to learn what we "ought to know" but which otherwise gets squeezed out of busy lives. Similarly, it makes us better people, forcing us even to the drastic prospect of introspection (nothing can make us more reflective about our past than facing an unpleasant prospect today).

Efficient procrastination keeps us clean. The April tax deadline motivates us to do our spring cleaning first. More laundry, yard work and home repair also gets done. Procrastination lets us eat better, generating good "home cooking" that would other­wise be too time consuming. It brings people together, by making phone calls, letters, and time with families more attractive, to discuss all those things we wouldn't know if we didn't procrastinate.

Even "couch potato" procrastination, which seeks refuge in inaction rather than other action, can be productive. How else can we justify making up our accumulated sleep deficits, to face the world well rested? Besides, nothing teaches crisis management (by keeping you in one) like procrastination.

Delay also allows us to gain better information before making decisions, which is why parents often counsel their children to procrastinate about important choices such as getting married. It gives us time to mull over the problem, letting us solve it more effi­ciently when we finally get to it. In fact, such "creative worry" often leads to insight. It characterizes many we consider geniuses, so that it may really be "genius at work." It also allows some problems to go away by themselves with the passage of time, providing a valuable tonic to attempts to fix every "What if...?" problem in advance.

Procrastination provides other benefits, as well. It provides a permanent, ready-made excuse any time someone wants to impose on you--you just have to point to the unfinished pile hanging over your head. It protects you against added responsibilities, by making it clear that you can barely handle what you have to do now, thereby avoiding the fate of those who finish early ("No good deed ever goes unpunished"). It conveys a huge strategic advantage over non-procrastinators, because they can always be out-waited and forced to bear the brunt of the costs. Remember which college roommate got stuck with most of the cleaning or how your child gets you to clean his room, and you'll see that the procrastinator often wins.

Rather than simply putting down putting off, we need to recognize its efficiency properties as well. Without it, we might get even less useful work accomplished in many areas. It deserves a little promotion, not just criticism. I'll get to it as soon as my taxes are done.

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