The positive side of procrastination

by Nyan Storey

One word that will quickly appear in the language of any student, be they English, French, Portuguese or Swahili, is Procrastination, or some equivalent.

We’ve all been there – we have an essay deadline inching closer and closer, and we keep saying to ourselves: “I’ll just do one more thing before I start writing”. My personal approach is to write a “to-do list”, and put a list of little “easy” things at the top, such as: “finish writing to-do list”. For some people, their homes will never be as clean as when exams are approaching, and others will suddenly realise how fascinating and constructive Wikipedia can be.

I’d go so far as to say that, statistically, if you are reading this article, you are probably procrastinating for something. I know that I’m procrastinating for something by writing it! Right now, I’m supposed to be working towards a deadline for another article, and those employers, unlike these, will definitely make my life much more difficult if I don’t do it in time. This article I have no deadline for – I could have written it in one year if I so chose. Somehow, the fact that I know that I have to do something gives me a sudden maddening desire to do something else, something that I wouldn’t usually want to do.

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This brings me to my main point in this article – as soon as you are looking for something constructive to be doing instead of what you are “supposed” to be doing, your mind is forced wide open. You can sit there fighting the urge, staring at a wall as you try to force your mind into a state of motivation, or you can embrace your desire to procrastinate, and allow it to sweep you away into another world.

Many of the best things that I’ve ever done, I did while procrastinating for something else that I “should” have been doing.

My favourite example is from January two years ago. I was trying to work up the energy to start writing an essay on a meaningless philosophical hair-splitting competition between Descartes and “Regius” (to be honest, I don’t really know who he is either) about the one-ness of the soul or something.

“Before I start”, I said to myself, “I’ll just read one article from my favourite magazine, the New Internationalist.”

“Just one more article”

“Maybe one or two more articles”

Needless to say, I finished the magazine an hour or so later, and said to myself – “ok, I guess I should probably start working now.”

“But before I do, I’ll just have a look on their website to see if they have any podcasts that I can listen to later”

They didn’t.

“I guess I should probably start my essay.”

I open my book, then think to myself – “Actually, maybe I just couldn’t find the podcasts. I’ll send them an email to ask them if they have any podcasts, just in case.”

Leaving my book open (I was about to start, really, so there was no point in closing it), I pushed it aside, and started to write this email, asking where their podcasts were kept. As I was about to press send, I looked over at my book, which lay ominously open in front of me, wide open like a crocodile’s mouth just waiting to eat up my afternoon of sunshine. Munch munch munch. Gulp. Pushing it further away with a slight shudder, I thought to myself, perhaps, while I’m at it, I could propose to start their podcast service myself!

Deleting the email I had prepared, I started again. To whom it may concern. I have a proposition that you may find deserving of your attention.

After writing a long email about the possible advantages to the NI of having a podcast service, and proposing myself and a (hypothetical) team of volunteers as potential organisers, I finally accepted that I could no longer justify not starting my work.

A few minutes later, when checking my emails and facebook, I saw that I had already received a response from the New Internationalist expressing their excitement about my offer. My mouth watering at the prospect of more procrastination, I closed the book, put it back on the shelf (so that I’d easily be able to find it again, of course), and promptly forgot about my deadline.

One of the key moments in my life.

Of course, my deadline came and went as I spent the next weeks learning everything I could on youtube about podcast production, and within weeks, I had a new and exciting job. That moment of procrastination, in which the limits of what were theoretically possible suddenly became much less important than avoiding what I was “supposed” to be doing, was one of the key moments of my life.

The end of the story is that 6 months later, when procrastinating for one of my NI deadlines, I finally got that old Descartes and Reguis book back out, and over three days and nights I finished the piece of work that I was supposed to have done in January, and handed it in two exam sessions late (but still achieving a reasonable mark). In the end, I had a job and a degree, rather than just a degree and a slight neck problem from staring at facebook windows.

Don’t fight against procrastination – you can’t win! Instead, make it your ally.

In a recent book by Frank Partnoy, entitled WAIT: The Art and Science of Delay, he identifies positive (e.g. cleaning your house, reading articles, getting back in contact with long lost friends) and negative (facebook, video games) procrastination. My argument is that as a student, fighting against procrastination is impossible – one way or another, it will win. But what is possible, and an excellent investment, is embracing positive procrastination, and thereby opening your mind to a whole series of constructive activities that you wouldn’t otherwise do.

You will procrastinate. Buy you want to be one of the ones who says “but it was worth it”.

In Uni, and to an extent in freelance journalism, this is quite a unique phenomenon. Once you arrive in the working world, procrastination is no longer an option that you have. Generally, there is quite a clear cut: “do it by next week, or we’ll make your life a living hell”. I’m now a journalist, and I’ve quickly discovered that you can’t “hand something in a few days late and accept a slightly lower mark” or “just retake it at the next exam session. At worst, you end up with one weeks work to do in one night, but one way or another, you’re going to do it. At uni, you can leave things for months and months, and then find yourself with 6 months of work to do in one week. There’s no denying that having to set your own deadlines is an invaluable character building experience, and that if you take procrastination to the extremes, then you’ll probably have a nervous breakdown. But there is a healthy balance that you should be looking for, in which you do procrastinate, but in the right way. University is a unique and unmissable opportunity to take advantage of the infinite new worlds that procrastination can open up for you. Everyone at uni will find themselves in a situation where they’ve left something way to late and has to stay up all night to finish something they’ve had weeks to complete. That’s unavoidable. But you want to be one of the ones who says “but it was worth it”.


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