These days, you can’t go on the internet without stumbling over content that promises you innumerable ways to become more productive. Indeed, the modern professional is expected to crank out project after project while simultaneously finding shortcuts that allow them to tackle even more responsibilities in the future.
But what if all that advice was wrong?
No two workers are alike. There are those of who prefer to tackle all of our work as much ahead of time as we can, and there are those of us who wait to the last minute. While you might believe that the members of the former group are certainly the ones who turn out more productive, there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests procrastination might actually be good for us.
It turns out that we may have been duped about the hazards of procrastinating in the first place. Just listen to what Frank Partnoy, author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, has to say on the subject:
Historically, for human beings, procrastination has not been regarded as a bad thing. The Greeks and Romans generally regarded procrastination very highly. The wisest leaders embraced procrastination and would basically sit around and think and not do anything unless they absolutely had to.
The idea that procrastination is bad really started in the Puritanical era with Jonathan Edwards’s sermon against procrastination and then the American embrace of “a stitch in time saves nine,” and this sort of work ethic that required immediate and diligent action.
But if you look at recent studies, managing delay is an important tool for human beings. People are more successful and happier when they manage delay. Procrastination is just a universal state of being for humans. We will always have more things to do than we can possibly do, so we will always be imposing some sort of unwarranted delay on some tasks. The question is not whether we are procrastinating, it is whether we are procrastinating well.
Maybe it’s time you stop forcing yourself to tackle boatloads of work as quickly as you can. After all, you’re likely to become noticeably more stressed out when you’ve got a never-ending list of tasks on your plate. And as we all know, stress makes us less productive.
What’s more, studies also suggest that procrastination—done strategically—can actually make us more productive. For example, if you’re a creative and you’re struggling to come up with new ideas or make progress on a project, maybe it’s because you’re burnt out or have writer’s block or something to that effect. Instead of staring into space aimlessly for hours, you might be better off closing your laptop, putting your work down and going for a walk outside. You may find out that procrastination actually makes you a better thinker and a stronger worker.
Need more convincing that being a procrastinator isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world? Not a problem. Over the centuries, there have been countless influential individuals who were known to procrastinate every now and again. Here are some of them.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Some people procrastinate simply because they are geniuses. Case in point? Mozart. The virtuoso was known to spend his days shooting pool—while at the same time writing symphonies in his mind. Mozart is said to have written the overture to Don Giovanni in one night, which happened to be the eve of the opera’s debut. Back to the Greeks: Thinking and planning are critically important to sound logic and clear thoughts. Instead of laboring over a piano all day writing and rewriting music, Mozart stepped away from his instruments and found inspiration elsewhere. You may not be as gifted as Mozart, but you almost certainly stand to benefit from stepping away from your work every now and again.
Graham Greene, an English novelist and playwright, believed that he couldn’t set words down on paper until he saw a magical sequence of numbers as he went about his day. So naturally, Greene would sit by the side of the road and look at license plates. Once he saw his inspirational combinations of numbers, he’d return to his desk and write. In a similar step-away-from-the-desk manner, Greene conceived what would become perhaps his most influential book, The Power and the Glory, while he was vacationing in Mexico. You might not want to wait around to tackle your work until you see the numbers Greene saw, but it’s okay to have your own routine, too. You can wait to get to work until you’ve had your morning coffee and exercised.
Frank Lloyd Wright
One of America’s most influential and accomplished architects, Frank Lloyd Wright may have been able to accomplish much more if he wasn’t such a procrastinator. Still, he’s routinely ranked as one of the innovative architects of his time—and perhaps ever. When Edgar Kauffman commissioned Wright to design a new home for him, the architect insisted he was making steady progress. But he hadn’t so much as drawn a single line on a sheet of paper a few hours before the two men were to meet. Under pressure from the impending meeting, Wright jazzed through a draft of a home that morning. That construction would eventually become known as the iconic Fallingwater property. It’s probably not the wisest thing to wait to the last minute to get to work, but sometimes you might perform even better under pressure. Being a procrastinator can pay off.
Leonardo da Vinci
Leonardo da Vinci accomplished more than most men could accomplish in 10 lifetimes. Despite never receiving much of a formal education, da Vinci explored a number of interests from science, art, inventing and sculpting to architecture, mathematics, astronomy and music—and everything in between. He’s probably best known for painting the Mona Lisa (which took him 16 years to complete) and The Last Supper (which he finished after his patron threatened to cut off his hands due to delays). While da Vinci accomplished a ton of amazing things in his life, the genius went to his deathbed worrying that he left much of his work unfinished. He didn’t have trouble starting projects, but he had trouble wrapping them up. You might not finish everything you set out to do in your career either. Just choose your battles and make the most impact you can.
Maybe the merits of procrastination—or the lack thereof—are merely a matter of perspective. Figure out a system that works best for you and stick to it. At the end of the day, the only thing that matters is whether you get your work done and done well.