Gus Cuddy | Essays:

Procrastination

02 November 2018

Procrastination gets a bad rap.

In an age of hyper-optimization and productivity apps and tweaks and hacks, we demonize procrastination. It’s the devil! Rise and grind! Do do do! Procrastination, after all, has an inverse correlation with productivity, which is the golden ideal of capitalism.

But I don’t think procrastination is that bad. Paul Graham has written how there’s good and bad procrastination – some of the world’s great thinkers and inventors and artists are terrible procrastinators, who procrastinate on busy work to do important work:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

John Perry has written a famous essay, also, on what he calls structured procrastination – a “technique” I use all the time.

And Nassim Taleb, in typically bombastic style, has written how procrastination is a sort of natural BS detector:

Few understand that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves and exercise their antifragility; it results from some ecological or naturalistic wisdom, and is not always bad—at an existential level, it is my body rebelling against its entrapment. It is my soul fighting the Procrustean bed of modernity.

I largely agree with all these points, but I want to expand on them with my own thoughts of how I think about procrastination.

See, I’m a Grade-A procrastinator. I put things off all the time.

And the way I see it, there are two reasons for procrastination:

  1. Your natural instinct is telling you that this work is inessential and can be forgoed, or:
  2. Fear is manifesting itself as procrastination

Now, obviously, there are things we can’t procrastinate forever on. We have to do our taxes, pay the bills, and run errands eventually.

But often there will be something I’m putting off, and when I think about it, it’s because it’s really not that important. I try to trust my instincts and my BS detector.

If you develop good habits, procrastination is actually useful. For instance, I might read a great book or watch an old movie instead of responding to a medium-priority email. Which is better? Hard to say, but it’s not like I’m wasting time by reading a book. (On the other hand, if you procrastinate by surfing Instagram or playing mindless video games, as I sometimes do, then you’re not spending your time very well at all.)

Indeed, masterpieces of art have come as the result of procrastination, as the result of simply fucking around while you’re “supposed” to be doing something else.

And it goes the other way: if you’re writing or creating something and you’re bored with it, what makes you think it’s going to be different for people consuming it? Your procrastination is actually a really good sign that you probably need more excitement in your work.

But you need to ask yourself: Am I not doing this because I’m afraid?

Because sometimes we will trick ourselves into not doing something, but really we’re just afraid to do it. (I can usually feel it in my heart. Journaling helps with this.) And I would argue that that type of procrastination is something you really need to be on the lookout for – it is corrosive, and defers dreams.

But don’t demonize or beat yourself up over procrastination, especially if is the good kind. Who knows what great things might come out of it.