I wonder if there’s anyone going around who never procrastinates. Who always does the most important thing first? Who doesn’t trade the most important for the urgent or the inane that suddenly screams ‘now’.
I am not that person.
I’m writing in a café right now and as I return to the page I realise that the arrival of my breakfast stopped me mid-word. Not mid-sentence or mid-paragraph, mid-word.
I’m no stranger to time management techniques, and I get a fair bit done, but this isn’t about productivity, faithfulness or busyness, it’s about procrastination: the productive and unproductive kinds.
Often, your procrastination is of low import. You waste time that you may or may not have had. More often, though, there are consequences attached. You compromise quality because you limit your ability to invest your best, or you let yourself and others down because you fail to deliver on the commitment that you’ve made.
There are times when I’ll write a priority list of what must get done in the next few hours and find myself immediately jumping straight to number five as if to instantly undermine the priority I’d just assigned to those tasks. Something about bite sized pieces.
More regularly, ok, half-daily, there’s a decision to do ‘x’ that is immediately gazumped by the thought that what would really assist the completion of ‘x’ is a good coffee. Another coffee.
Amidst self-exhortations of ‘c’mon, push through’ and ‘do it now’ and ‘c’mon you hapless water buffalo’, there has been the occasion revelation about procrastination.
In short, it’s not all bad.
To decide that you’re going to go for a run first thing in the morning, missing the moment and spending the rest of the day re-re-re-scheduling a run that never happens has little upside. That just a wasted opportunity.
But there are other strains of procrastination.
Jens Voigt, the German road cyclist, had a short cut to the tortured conversation of procrastination. He’d say: “shut up legs and do what I tell you.” My equivalent snoozy slur of that fruitless conversation is “get up you lazy bum”. It’s not that the insult triggers action, rather it short-circuits the futile conversation long enough to get me moving. Feet on the carpet.
But this isn’t the brand of procrastination I’m peddling.
I’m keen on what happens while you’re spinning your wheels. I’m keen on the things you get done while you’re putting off your self-designated ‘best thing’. I’m arguing that procrastination may just have a productive strain.
If my list of ten things becomes three-quarters complete as I take my long, long run up to the ‘best thing’ and no one gets hurt in the process, that’s productive procrastination. Those things needed to get done, and you got them done.
No mistake, it’s not as good as getting your best thing done, but it’s something.
Brian Tracy, the time management guru, wrote a book about procrastination, ‘Eat that Frog.‘
The title was inspired by Mark Twain, who once said that if the first thing you do each morning is to eat a live frog, then you can navigate the rest of the day knowing the worst is done. Your ‘frog’ is your ‘best thing’. It’s the thing you’re most likely to procrastinate if you don’t do something about it. It’s the big, hairy, ‘don’t come near me yet’ thing.
Twain’s and Tracy’s notion was a good’un. Perhaps if every one of my days began with ingesting a frog, I wouldn’t be here putting a positive spin on procrastination. Mind you; perhaps I’d be sitting here scratching a handful of warts. But I’m going to assume that I’m not the only person around with a penchant for procrastination, and my encouragement is that if you’re going to do it, do it well!
If you’re going to put off that message prep, that piece you need to write, that brand you should be working on, that garden you need to weed, then make sure you don’t fill it with three episodes of your guilty pleasure. Fill it with stuff that needs to be done anyway.
It seems my favourite strategy is to lull my ‘best thing’ into a false sense of security through the agency of productive procrastination and then, when it is least expecting it, pounce on unsuspectingly with an avalanche of industry. Before too long, my giant frog lies helpless having morphed into a snack-sized tadpole.
One last thing: if you’re going to engage in this dance of productive procrastination, at least begin by knowing what is that you’re not doing. Know who it is that you’re not dancing with. Because I’ve discovered that one of the unexpected benefits of productive procrastination is that it’s only so long before the case for moving on to your best dance partner becomes utterly compelling.
Somethings cannot be put off. Some can. Some things are important for good, Godly reasons. Some aren’t. God give us the wisdom to know the difference.
By the way: I should probably get on to that other thing that I should have been working on before this thing. Right after I get another coffee.