Tax time and the power of productive procrastination

FEW characteristics are more common to human nature, or more commonly admitted, than procrastination. Yet even though it is a nearly universal human trait, it is just as universally considered to be a bad thing, demanding excuse or apology. I believe that this conclusion is not justified and that it is time for someone to step forward in defense of the power of productive procrastination (actually, I have thought so for awhile, but just haven't been able to get around to doing anything about it). Procrastination arises when we are faced with something unpleasant that we feel we must or should do. Prime examples include doing our income taxes (and now, thanks to the beneficence of our government, the new W-4 forms), paying bills, making up, grading or studying for exams, preparing sales reports or other paperwork, etc. Given that such projects are less than attractive, we set about to find ways to put them off. In so doing, we focus the force of our creativity on discovering things which suddenly need doing first. The key to productive procrastination lies in harnessing, for useful purposes, this creative ability to duck responsibility.

A productive procrastinator is a person who, when faced with a distasteful duty, can only justify putting it off by first working on other things that ought to be done but for which there has not been time or energy. In these people, procrastination is a force for social good. It first leads to redoubled efforts and greater accomplishments in other worthwhile areas, then gives way to a sense of duty which motivates them to finish the task they worked so hard to avoid.

Productive procrastination broadens our horizons. If not for work we wanted to avoid, we would not be nearly as well informed as we are. Procrastination is the lever we use to learn what we ought to know but which otherwise gets squeezed out of our busy lives. For example, I am convinced that if it were not for procrastination, most of us would know almost nothing of politics or international affairs and most journalists would be out of a job. Similarly, productive procrastination can make us better people. Introspection can be a painful but extremely useful thing - so painful, in fact, that it can take an even more painful alternative to lead us to it.

Spring cleaning would seldom take place if it were not for the possibility of putting off doing our taxes till the last minute. Vacuuming, laundry, and waxing the car are other manifestations of this same principle. Productive procrastination lets us eat better. Having something to put off can result in some good ``home cooking'' that would otherwise be too time consuming. This gourmet cooking can last several days when putting off something really ``big.'' Productive procrastination gets us to communicate with one another. Parents, otherwise too absorbed in their work, can be brought to spend time with their families. Letters get written and phone calls get made, continuing or reestablishing relationships.

Notice that I have not defended all forms of procrastination. In particular, I have not promoted ``couch potato'' procrastination, which involves seeking refuge in inaction. This type of procrastination involves the abrupt awareness of a need for some rest and relaxation prior to facing the rigors of the task ahead. It is unproductive because rather than generating the energy and enthusiasm to attend to the chore at hand, this ``R & R'' typically fuels the mind to even greater exertions to invent ``new and improved'' excuses to avoid it. The result is often that the dreaded deed that had been put off is barely finished, with nothing but guilt to show for the failure to get anything else done.

However, even what may appear to be ``couch potato'' procrastination may in fact be very productive. For example, what teaches lessons about crisis management (by keeping you in a continual crisis) like procrastination? It also allows you to gain better information prior to making a decision, allowing better choices to be made. This is why most parents advise their kids to procrastinate about deciding whom and when to marry. Occasional periods of such ``creative worry'' are often a precursor to insight and are characteristic of those we think of as geniuses. Procrastination also allows some problems to go away by themselves with the passage of time, providing a productive tonic to the destructive tendency to try to fix every problem in advance.

There are other benefits to productive procrastination. Putting off things you really have to do gives you a ready-made excuse any time someone wants to impose (``I'd love to, Bob, but I really have to ...''). It also helps you avoid being given additional unwanted responsibilities by making it clear that you can just handle what you have to do now, thereby avoiding the fate of those who finish early. Procrastinators have a huge strategic advantage over those who don't, because they can always outwait them.

It is time to stop denigrating all forms of procrastination. It is time to try to harness it for good. Productive procrastination is the answer, because it allows us to accomplish more than we could without it.

Gary M. Galles teaches economics at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif.

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