Not all procrastinating is created equal. Which do you do?

When you find yourself avoiding something, are you avoiding something important (a bad idea) or are you unconsciously avoiding a waste of time (a good call)?

Photo illustration / Carl Vaughan / MCT / Newscom / File
Why do we avoid what we avoid? Figuring out whether you're just being work-avoidant or unconsciously trying not to waste your time requires a clear understanding of what your values and goals are.

I just finished reading a wonderful article on procrastination by James Surowiecki in the October 11 issue of The New Yorker. The money quote:

[I]t might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

“Akratic” is a term defined earlier in the article, a word taken from the works of early Greek philosophers that refers to doing something against one’s better judgment.

In essence, Surowiecki is making the statement that we procrastinate in two ways: we either do something truly against our better judgment or we are simply acting on our deep impulse that we’re merely avoiding something that’s a waste of time. Either we’re procrastinating something worthwhile (a mistake) or something wasteful (a good move).

How do you distinguish between the two, though? How do you know, when you realize that you’ve been procrastinating, whether you’re sensibly discarding something useless or you’re really undermining your larger goals in life?

This is something I often find challenging in my own life. Yes, sometimes in the evenings, I don’t want to do the things on my to-do list. I want to play a game with my wife or make faces at my six month old son or just watch a movie. How do I know if my procrastination is really undermining things or if it’s just my subconscious making a good choice between the things I need to do?

Here’s how.

I do regular reviews of my to-do list. As I mentioned before, I keep an ongoing to-do list that just includes all of the stuff I need to get done in the next several days. As the days go by, I constantly add stuff to it (usually at the top) and make an effort to reduce the number of things on that list.

The problem is that I often end up with a bunch of junk on the list, urgent tasks that aren’t really important at all. So, I’ll wind up skipping many of the things at the top of the list and dig through the ones lower down.

This ends up completely confusing my own sense of what things are actually important and, without some work, renders my list of things to do completely useless. I have no sense of whether there really are important things to be done or whether my to-do list is a pile of junk.

The solution? Review the list. Kick off the unimportant stuff, even when you’re making difficult calls. I find more and more that if I have any doubt that something is important, I should just kick it off.

This way, when I have a window of opportunity to procrastinate, I can just look at my real to-do list. Is there something that needs done? If not, then I can do what I want to do.

I have a good grip on my personal and professional responsibilities and how they rate. How do I decide if something on my to-do list is actually important? I usually think of it in terms of what I actually want to accomplish in life – my bigger goals.

Here’s an example: we are not neurotic housecleaners. We don’t have a big mess all over the place, but we also don’t spend hours cleaning out the nooks and crannies of our garage. It would be very easy for us to constantly add cleaning tasks to our to-do list, but most of the time, we don’t. We might take care of one deep cleaning task a week, but aside from that, we have other things that are more important to us.

Another example comes from my college days. I used to keep a to-do list of all of my college assignments and then find that I never had time to complete them all. I’d have a list loaded with reading assignments that I hadn’t completed, so I’d skip by them to find the actual items that were due. A better method would have been to actually ask myself if this reading was important at all – for some classes, yes; for others, no – and then just never add the unimportant ones to the list.

It’s all about understanding what’s important and not clogging yourself up with the unimportant. For me, it’s that confusion that leads to a sense of being overwhelmed and then procrastinating on things that are actually important in my life. That kind of procrastination is costly, sometimes dangerous, and definitely worth avoiding.

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