When Procrastination is a Good Thing

Most of us think of procrastination as a bad thing–something we should avoid, but that isn’t always the case. People focus too much on the task or job that is not getting completed, but you can’t tell if procrastination is good or bad by looking at what isn’t getting done–you have to look at what is getting done instead.

For example, if instead of writing this post, I start fiddling around on the Internet and spend a mindless hour on social sites or reading jokes, that is probably a bad thing.  This post is more valuable to me than an hour wasted on the Internet.  However, if I decided I don’t really want to write this post and instead decide that it is nice enough outside that I should take my kids to the park for an hour, that really isn’t a negative thing. Maybe I came up with the idea as a form of procrastination to put off writing this post, but my procrastinating activity is something more valuable than the activity I’m putting off.

So there are two ways to procrastinate.  One is by doing something of much lower value than the activity you are putting off and the other is by doing something of higher value than the activity you are delaying. If you are doing a higher value activity then you aren’t really wasting time. Obviously there are limits to this–eventually I have to take the time to pay my bills and I can’t just put them off forever. However, within reason, procrastination can have some positive aspects as long as you are shifting to an activity that you value more than what you are putting off.

Sometimes the feeling of “I don’t really want to do this” is our subconscious trying desperately to point out that the activity we are about to start really isn’t that important to us and we should be doing something different. When this results in a change of plans where we do something valuable it can be a good thing.  Unfortunately we often replace the activity with something that is even less valuable.  These types of activities are the equivalent of junk food–they are chosen because of they are easy to start.  It is much easier to start the task of randomly browsing the web than it is to start the task of preparing your taxes.

The trick to being productive is being able to recognize the feeling of procrastination and then taking appropriate actions.  Once you recognize that you are headed toward a procrastinating activity, steer it toward doing something valuable. Take a few moments to decide whether the task you want to put off really needs done at all. Even if it does need to be done, perhaps now isn’t the best time for it.  Sometimes you’ll need to go ahead and complete the task, but giving yourself the option to do something different can be liberating.


  1. says

    it’s a hard-nosed approached because you might end up overthinking which one is of higher value other than the task at hand. The key I guess is to be honest with ourselves, and just get things done.

  2. says

    Love it. I do this all the time…I like to think of it as “prioritizing” rather than “procrastinating”. I also find that sometimes it forces me into doing my work MORE efficiently. When I’m left with less time to do a task I don’t have the option of dragging it out (hemming and hawing about it). I get it done faster, and in the “procrastination” time I’ve gotten a lot of other good things done too. Win win.

  3. Daniel says

    There’s another aspect that I discovered in grad school. If you really don’t want to work on a piece of code right now, don’t. The work will be frustrating, unproductive and could even cause you to do damage to a piece of code. On the other hand, if you feel like working on a piece of code, work on it, no matter what time, day or night. Just because you aren’t working on the code doesn’t mean you aren’t thinking about. Getting away for a few hours may bring you closer to that AHA moment you need to solve a complex problem.

  4. says

    There is a term in economics called “TINSTAAFL”. It is an acronym for there is no such thing as a free lunch. Basically, it is opportunity cost. For example, If I choose to play on the internet for one hour, that is one hour I don’t have to play with my kids, do my work, sleep, etc. It is kind of similar to your “two ways to procrastinate.”

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