Is procrastination a bad thing? We all put off important tasks from time to time, but research has found that around 1 in 5 Americans are what can be called “chronic” procrastinators – which is anyone who continually puts off doing something until later (source).
But is that necessarily a bad thing? Is procrastination as bad as our culture makes it out to be?
Think about this:
Life is seasonal in nature. Like the Bible says, there’s a time for everything – a time to plant seeds and a time to harvest them. When we look at how nature goes through cycles and seasons, we’ll start to get the same picture: flurries of activity in specified times rather than extended and consistent activity spread evenly over time.
Don’t get me wrong: Nature is always intentional, but it isn’t always producing. Sometimes it’s dormant. Sometimes it seems like it isn’t moving at all. And other times it’s as if all of nature is coming to life in an instant.
Most flowers bloom in the spring – not year round – and they lie dormant during the winter months. During that time, they’re not consistently doing the same things they do during spring. They’re seasonal.
Our minds work in a similar way. Let’s call it “seasonal thinking”. Seasonal thinking is simply applying more energy towards certain things at certain times rather than trying to spread everything out evenly over long periods of time.
For many people, extreme consistency is frustrating and it feels unattainable. That’s because humans are naturally wired to be seasonal thinkers.
This is why we feel bad when we have a project that’s due in three months, but we put it off for two months, then knock it out in the last few weeks. It’s because we’ve been conditioned that any level of procrastination is wrong. After all, our culture over-values activity and under-values living in the present moment. We’re always planning and we’re always scheming. It’s what we do best.
Unfortunately, we’ve come to believe that activity equals significance.
Yet in our drive for constant output, we miss the moments right in front of us. We exchange rest for more action. We forsake seasonal thinking in exchange for constant progress.
Once you get in the mood to do something and you’re focused on getting it knocked out, you’re much more productive. It takes a while to get to that place mentally, so once you do, it only makes sense to stay in that place for a longer period of time rather than segmenting your work in shorter, less-focused, bursts.
When we work on things here and there over a long period of time, we find ourselves cutting off our focus, fragmenting our work, and losing motivation. But when we allow for longer (and naturally less often) amounts of time to work on things, we reach a state of deep focus that’s often referred to as “flow” that enables us to complete tasks more efficiently. In fact, some studies have found that we’re as much as five times more productive when we’re in these states of deep focus. (source)
Here’s another thing to think about:
When you work on something closer to when it’s due, it puts you under a certain amount of pressure to get it done. And, as it turns out, that pressure helps with performance. There’s a concept in psychology known as the “Yerkes-Dodson Law” that says that people perform best when they’re under a moderate amount of pressure. We do our best when a task is neither so simple that it’s boring nor so hard that it produces anxiety. (Psychology Today)
Look, we should absolutely embrace long-term thinking and planning when used appropriately. There are some things that should be done day in and day out – like selflessness, self-discipline, kindness, and a litany of other character qualities we need every single day. Those are daily practices that should always be done consistently. But even when we’re honing our character in those ways, there’s still a seasonal aspect to it. There are times when we grow tremendously, and there are times when we’re soaking in and applying what we’ve learned. In that way, growth is still seasonal.
And there’s value in planning and taking consistent action when we’re in a specified period of time where we’re working on giant projects.
But that’s not always necessary, and as a culture, we tend to overstress busyness and undervalue “seasonal thinking” (which is often called procrastination).
The bottom line is, when we combine the performance-driving effects of a) working under a little bit of stress closer to a deadline and b) being able to commit larger chunks of focus and energy at one time, the overall effect is much more productive work.
So let’s stop shaming all the procrastinators in the world. They just might be onto something.