Why Procrastination Is Good for You

I recently took on a project that seemed like it would never end.

Every time we had an update call, the project’s scope got larger. What I thought would be a couple days of work turned into several months of work, all rolled into the same flat fee. And because the project started to feel like a downer, I started avoiding it… which meant that all this work kept backing up… and backing up… and looking less and less appetizing all the time.

I let the project linger until there was only one week left to complete it.

Luckily, I’d cleared my schedule for that week, which meant I had almost no other priorities to juggle. I was free to manage this project on my own time, in my own way, and finally get it off my plate, off my shoulders, and out of my mind.

Now, productivity gurus will tell you that I should have jumped right in and gotten it all done in a furious blaze of efficiency, learned from my mistakes, and vowed never to make them again.

But that’s not quite what happened.

What actually happened was, I worked on the project for awhile one afternoon… and then I gave myself a break… which lasted for a couple days. In that time, I did other work for other clients. I distracted myself. I saw a movie. I took naps. Granted, they were fitful, stress dream-fueled naps that were in no way relaxing, but they served their true purpose: eating up time.

Which was a problem, because the project had a hard deadline, and I was bumping up against it.

The Moment of Truth

Finally, it was the weekend. I had three days left, but I wasn’t worried. I figured the remaining deliverables would only take me about 90 minutes apiece, or about 4 hours total. No problem. Piece of cake.

Armed with that knowledge, I… took most of Saturday off, because hey, why diverge from a habit that’s working, right?

So now it’s Sunday. I sit down and schedule out my day. I figure I’ll be finished in the early evening. I get some coffee and start working on the next deliverable…

.. and that’s when I realize I’m wrong.

Like, seriously wrong.

It turns out these last few components won’t take 90 minutes each. They’ll take 4 hours each, or 16 hours total.

While this is happening, another client contacts me with a rush job. Now I have four times the work PLUS a bonus round, and it’s all due the next day.

And this, faithful reader, is the real moral of the story.

Because this is when I buckled down and became the most efficient, sleep-deprived worker you’ve ever seen.

I pumped out those remaining deliverables by working through the day and overnight, producing roughly 1/3 of the entire volume of this 3-month project in a day and a half. Then I crashed, slept until I was coherent again, and knocked out the rush job for the other client.

(And, for the record, the work was good. In fact, my clients were so pleased with the results in both cases that I received a fee bonus from one and additional work from another. If that wasn’t the case, you’d be hearing a different kind of cautionary tale here.)

Now, I didn’t execute that project this way because it makes sense, or because that process in any way reduces my stress, or because I had to do it that way. If I was a proactive productivity geek, I could have wrapped it weeks earlier and slept well throughout January (aside from the paralyzing fear that society is collapsing around me, but that’s a different topic).

No, I did this because procrastinating and wasting time pisses me off and generates the momentum I need to finally take seriously all the work I would otherwise prefer to avoid.

And it works.

Is this approach wise? Not necessarily. In fact, I’ve previously written before about a much more proactive way to manage this work, so I’m well aware of how to solve this problem without a last-minute binge.

But.

Even though I know the “smarter” way to manage these projects, I still tend to follow the procrastinator’s method instead. Why? Because, having proven to myself for years that I can do this and it works, that’s how I keep doing it. This has been my m.o. as far back as college — I was the guy who’d wait ’til the last minute to start a project, pull an all-nighter, and still end up with an A — so by now it’s become ingrained as my default workflow.

I mention all of this not necessarily as advice or even as a rationalization, but as a suggestion.

Or, rather, two.

The Hidden Benefits of Procrastination

First, if you do the same thing — if you’re always putting off the shit you don’t want to do until you absolutely have to and you’re still killing it — stop apologizing for it. Stop trying to fix it. Stop believing that what you’re doing is somehow inefficient or needs to be corrected to suit someone else’s idea of productivity.

Do you realize how breathtakingly productive you actually are when you do this? Do you realize what kind of tantalizing super power you’re demonstrating? There are people who would trade actual time and money for the ability to be able to waste weeks and still nail their objectives. Procrastinating and still winning doesn’t make you a slacker; it makes you an extremely lazy version of the Flash, and that guy frequently saves entire universes, so stop feeling bad about your own work habits.

What matters are the results, not the road you took to get there. Your road may be marred by skid marks as you speed toward the finish line after a slow start, but check the scoreboard. Did you finish? Did you win?

Great. Embrace it.

(NOTE: this only works if you’re actually getting the job done well despite being a procrastinator. If you’re falling short, failing, or producing work you know is less than your best, that’s a different problem. That, you should probably fix.)

The second benefit is even more counter-intuitive, but possibly even more important.

If you’ve never been a procrastinator before — if you’re always organized, always punctual, always on time, never distracted, and your deliverables arrive weeks early and in perfect condition — maybe you SHOULD try this approach.

You might think that sounds crazy, but I’d argue there are two major reasons to try it.

One: it sounds like you’re already doing the same thing, only in reverse. You overcompensate by binge-working at the beginning of a project, rather than at the end. And when you do that, you’re teaching everyone else that you, too, can do 3 months of work in 3 days… but you’re doing it at the beginning… which means they’ll start expecting you to be this efficient all the time, no matter how unsustainable your terrifying productivity is. (“Just give it all to Cheryl, she’ll have it done by lunch.”)

Two: When you’re always ahead of the curve, you never consider whether or not the curve is actually working.

What do I mean by that? Consider this:

When I binge in order to finish a project, I cut out everything that’s unnecessary. I don’t have time to doodle and sketch and tinker and iterate and problem-solve; I have to find a solution that works, fast, and go all in (which means I need to be decisive). I have to (finally) eliminate distractions (which necessitates pitch-perfect focus). I have to either use only the tools I already know well (which is a form of devising a process simplification) or I need to learn new tools at the speed of light (which requires intense cognitive and physiological concentration and mastery). And I have to justify all of these choices (which requires documentation and clear, timely, explicit communication).

In short (and somewhat paradoxically): when I get mad at myself for waiting so long to complete a project that I have to binge-work it all at the end, that’s when I become simultaneously hyper-efficient and hyper-aware of all the inefficiencies in the system I’m bypassing.

At the risk of overlapping an ugly Venn diagram of conversation topics: sometimes you need to realize your economic / romantic / political system is on the verge of crashing in order to understand what’s worth saving and how to fix it for the future, and sometimes you need to stare down a complex project in an unreasonably short amount of time in order to get to the heart of how it works and find a smarter, faster, and more efficient way of doing it in the future.

To be fair, the ideal approach to all of this is probably somewhere in the middle. Giving yourself a buffer for emergencies in cases like this is a necessity, because if anything goes wrong during your mad dash, you’re going to crash.

But when crashing isn’t an option, it’s amazing how good you can be at finding solutions you’d never have found otherwise.

There’s something to be said — in business, in politics, in love, and in life — for getting infuriated enough with yourself to finally do what you should have been doing all along.

If that approach works for you, stop apologizing for it. Own it. Use it to break down inefficient systems and eliminate detrimental aspects.

Just leave it off your business card. It tends to freak potential clients out.

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