Five reasons procrastination is a valid coping strategy


procrastinateFive reasons procrastination is a valid coping strategy took form in my thoughts as my co-authoring partner, Emily Kimelman,  and I deferred, for the third time, a difficult task we needed tackle involving coordinating a day-by-day timeline of the plot of our series of romance thrillers.


Just typing that sentence was a total buzzkill.

You might think that with my interest in this common peccadillo, that I’m a regular procrastinator. I’m not. I’ve always been a planner, a doer, someone who believes in reducing stress by staying on top of projects. I’ve come upon the joys and functionality of procrastination somewhat by accident.

Let’s pause for a moment and define procrastination, so we know exactly what we’re dealing with. It’s a verb, and Webster’s defines it thus: to be slow or late about doing something that should be done: to delay doing something until a later time because you do not want to do it, because you are lazy, etc. To put off intentionally and habitually.”

Even the definition is rife with character assassination, with its use of with intentional, lazy, and habitual. Every day of the week you’ll come across a new article on how to beat procrastination, including this excellent one from Harvard Business Review.

What you won’t find are many articles justifying procrastination as a valid choice. Many behaviorists and psychologists believe that people do things that benefit them; and that all behaviors have a purpose. Procrastination does too. After all, it wouldn’t be such a pervasive, persistent human behavior if it didn’t carry some inherent rewards. It’s past time for  procrastination to get the positive attention it deserves!

Procrastination is a passive form of decision-making.

Make no mistake: choosing to do nothing is a form of action. Anyone who has ever worked on a team with a procrastinator knows this for a fact. Not deciding forces the tumblers of fate to take a turn. On the plus side, you, the procrastinator, didn’t have to make the decision. On the minus side, you now have to live with whatever that decision was.

Sometimes procrastination leads to new information and data, helping to make a better decision.

Not taking action or making a decision gives time for new information to be gathered, realized, and remembered, processed. Procrastination gives the brain time to come up with creative ideas. What it requires is that you actively procrastinate in such a way that the new ideas can bubble up through the subconscious and solve the problem. Some people call this waiting.

What does this look like? It looks like walking with no music on, or doing a repetitive task with no distractions (such as crocheting or weeding.) It looks like allowing boredom and a lack of other distractions to force the brain to grapple subconsciously with the situation.

In my above example with the timeline talk being put off three times, my writing partner Emily had a “Eureka!” moment: we would simply publish the books in a different order, rather than fix the series timeline. Woot! Problem solved. If we’d tried to fix the timeline right away, we would have missed this easy solution.

HOWEVER: playing another round of Candy Crush is not going to generate new creativity, alas, nor is watching TV. These kinds of distractions actually increase creative blockage. Someone might say that these activities are true procrastination, while my suggested activity of waiting is actually too difficult to endure to be a valid form of our verb. Still, I would argue that if you’re not doing what you’re “supposed” to be doing, then doing something else, a step below in misery level, without distraction, could still be a passive way to address the problem and/or get you to eventually do that hated thing.

Caveat: if the hated thing you are procrastinating about is a simple chore, like putting off doing the dishes, no new data, creativity or idea on how to do it better is likely emerge. (Except for the discovery that maggots can, indeed, be hatched in a bowl of leftover mac’n’cheese in the sink.)

If you procrastinate, sometimes you don’t have to be the bad guy.

Make no mistake. People are not fooled. They can tell when you are procrastinating, no matter how you try to hide, obfuscate, deflect, disguise, and otherwise shift attention away from that fact. However, nature abhors a vacuum, so someone will usually step up and take control if you will not. They then become the “official” bad guy in any situation that might turn bad, go south, or otherwise bite people on the collective ass. This leaves you, the procrastinator, with a handy sidekick role as the person who forced someone else to do something, but didn’t actually do anything.

You don’t have to make a decision if you procrastinate.

The decision gets made by the situation unfolding to its natural, sometimes horrific conclusion (like unchecked global warming, or your sink overflowing until there are no clean dishes in the house) or by someone else finally taking action (like your wife leaving you because of your procrastination habit.) This, of course, can be a double-edged sword, but at least YOU didn’t have to decide anything or take responsibility.

Procrastination forces the people around you to do the heavy lifting.

Oh, this is the very best reason to procrastinate. If you leave those dishes, miss that deadline, dodge that unpleasant phone call, SOMEONE ELSE will have to deal with it. (Unless they too, are procrastinating. In which case, not a lot gets done, and mass entropy manifests into degenerative chaos motivated by ass-covering—i.e., our current government situation.) You got away with not doing anything. Yay! When confronted, you can say you didn’t do anything because you didn’t want to do anything wrong. It really sounds good! (And it can even be applied to the dishes: “I didn’t know how you wanted me to do them!”)

Procrastination is a great coping strategy with a minor downside: everyone knows you’re doing it, and thinks you’re a douche. If you can live with that, procrastinate on and experience these profound truths: the un-aimed arrow never misses. You didn’t do anything wrong. You were simply not doing anything, and that isn’t wrong.

Is it?

Did I miss mentioning any more of procrastination’s virtues? Let me know in comments!

4 Responses to “Five reasons procrastination is a valid coping strategy”

  1. Shalora

    I find that procrastination can help with my anxiety. If I have a task that needs to be done in, say, a week’s time and it is giving me massive anxiety, if I put it off for *just a few days* (so that I still have plenty of time to do it), that bit of a pause before beginning can help take my anxiety down to levels I can function with. This probably goes along with assimilating and processing the information in the situation. I don’t know, I just know that sometimes it’s the only way I can function. (I am currently in the middle of doing this, so it’s fresh in my mind, lol)

  2. Amy

    I can’t think of any other virtues of it.

    Even though I do know I sometimes have a hard time making decisions (I’m a true Libra in that regard) I really try not to procrastinate. But I found I have been this last weekend when it has come to writing :P. Not because I don’t want to, or have had a block (per say) – but have been thinking on the situation – even while reading or doing other things – I have them in at moment (and it was a busy weekend for me). So this was a helpful article for me – thank you, Toby :).

  3. Emily Kimelman

    If I’m procrastinating writing a scene then it’s probably because that scene is boring which is a sign that it should not be written at all. Procrastinating or “waiting” is a great way to let my brain figure out how to make it exciting/worth writing. Our timeline issues were definitely not exciting 🙂 and they have basically resolved themselves… which is very nice of them.

  4. Holly Robinson

    I’m a big fan of procrastination–especially when you’re stuck. Sometimes my best inspiration comes when I walk away from the writing and do something completely different–usually something involving physical activity. That’s when I often have my “aha!” moments about plot and character development. Nice post, Toby!