Procrastination: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

To say that procrastination can be bad is almost an insult to bad things.

Like when a project is hanging over your head. And anxiety is piling on. Yet, you can find 101 other things to do each day. Finally—in the nick of time—you pull the task from the jaws of disaster (or at least public humiliation). Only to find it wasn’t even that challenging?

But, that’s just bad. Sometimes it’s ugly. That’s when you finish an assignment but know it could have been many times better had you simply started earlier.

If you’ve worked in any kind of professional job for more than a week, you are no doubt all too familiar with those scenarios. My question is, when it comes to writing, can procrastination ever be a good thing?

One time, I gathered more than enough great material, quotes and research for an article I really looked forward to writing. Yet I put it off in favor of developing strategic and measurable goals for the publication. Okay, that never happened. But wouldn’t it be good if it did?

Essayist, computer programmer and venture capitalist Paul Graham, says the most impressive people he knows are good procrastinators. That is, they don’t dutifully check off item after item on their to-do lists. They ignore busy work in favor of sneaking off to tackle an important problem; uninterrupted. (See “Essays”: Good and Bad Procrastination for more on that.)

For me, procrastination isn’t so much a problem for things that inspire me. I can be utterly ruthless in avoiding errands in order to delve into pieces of writing I’m excited about. Once I’m in the flow, there’s no stopping me. I screen calls. Shut my office door. Take it home with me. Stay up until 2 a.m. Happily.

Yet, I’ve also learned the value of delay. Such as when I’m tempted to call the results of any of those inspired bursts of creativity “done.” Often, taking another look after taking a good break makes some rather embarrassing omissions, sophomoric phrases and errors; become rather obvious.

There’s an art to delay. It’s when ideas percolate; you can bring teammates in to the process; when the better way of framing your content suddenly comes into focus.

My morning commute consists of roughly four miles down a pretty two-lane highway with minimal traffic. I pass through some of the most serene countryside around. There’s a long stretch of green between miles two and three. It’s where a lot of my edgiest headlines, most compelling leads and most intriguing approaches suddenly pop into my head, seemingly from nowhere.

To me, that’s good procrastination. And it can be powerful. When you put something aside for a bit, you allow for a certain creative synergy that I think can’t be forced. No matter how disciplined or inspired you might be.

Do you think procrastination can play a positive role in your writing? Share your story. Good, bad or ugly!

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