Yes, you read that headline right. Putting off work has a bad reputation, but research demonstrates that procrastination often serves a purpose. Especially for employees in creative domains, procrastination is just part of the process. It helps you clear your mind and focus on what’s important, and allows your subconscious to sort things out.
So next time you’re playing Candy Crush instead of making an important decision, don’t sweat it too much. Here’s every justification for your procrastination:
Frank Partnoy, the author of Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, said that our perception of procrastination has changed only in the last few hundred years, with the Puritans instilling an ethic of frugality. “Historically, for human beings, procrastination has not been regarded as a bad thing,” he said. “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.”
Psychological experts say there are two types of procrastination. Passive procrastination is simply ignoring the things you have to get done and sitting on the couch watching TV. Active procrastination (yes, it’s a real thing) is purposefully putting off a task or decision in an effort to consider it more carefully. For example, clearing the rest of your to-do list so you can focus on a task is active procrastination. This conscious form of procrastination is, in its own way, productive.
In this form of active procrastination, your mind is collecting information and generating ideas without any conscious effort. This is important for creative work. For example, many people do their best thinking in the shower. They might not be even trying to come up with any solutions, but the contemplative relaxation of the experience spurs their subconscious into action.
While making quick decisions might feel good in the moment, it doesn’t allow you to prioritize what’s important to you. By delaying the process, your mind naturally begins to sort out what’s critical and what can be left behind. With a task, procrastination is often a subtle indicator that you’re not passionate about or interested in the work. Then you should look for ways to pass that work on to someone who is passionate about it.
Managers often feel inclined to discourage procrastination. But it’s actually a key mental process that can lead to higher quality work. Instead of resisting procrastination, we should look for ways to harness it and use it for our benefit.