The Positive Side of Procrastination: Why You Don’t Have to Do Everything (Right This Minute)
I hate being indecisive. When faced with a major decision — like whether to move up to a bigger house or return to work after my son was born — I feel compelled to try to make up my mind as soon as I can.
Yet I worry that I’m forcing myself to choose before I’m ready. That’s when I seek advice from my mom, whose counsel never wavers: “Give yourself time. You don’t have to make a decision today.”
My mom is onto something. (Hey, she has 65 years’, four kids’, and seven grandkids’ worth of experience.) Procrastinators have always gotten a bad rap, but putting off decisions — especially hard ones — may actually pay off.
Research reveals that making choices depletes your self-control, as the same area of the brain controls both self-regulation and decision-making.
That means that making even a minor decision, like what color to paint your bathroom, may affect your ability to stick to your diet. And so-called “active procrastinators” are anything but paralyzed by indecision to act. Instead, they make a deliberate decision to put things off as they thrive on working under pressure.
What Kind of Procrastinator are You?
We tend to think of procrastinators as being lazy or overwhelmed. In fact, they may be anything but.
Researchers sometimes divide procrastinators into two types: passive and active. Passive procrastinators end up postponing tasks because they can’t make decisions quickly.
Active procrastinators, on the other hand, choose to postpone tasks, focusing their attention on other things. They prefer to work under pressure and are motivated by a rapidly approaching deadline, while the same deadline makes passive procrastinators feel discouraged and pressured. (As a result, passive procrastinators are more likely to give up without completing the task.)
But putting off a decision or chore may simply mean that you’re simply not ready to tackle it yet. According to psychologist James Prochaska’s “Stages of Change” theory, people move through five distinct stages when they attempt to make a life change: precontemplation (when the change isn’t even being considered), contemplation (considering a change), preparation (getting ready to make the change), action (actually making the change), and maintenance (continuing the behavior until it becomes habit).
“Basically what Prochaska says is that people have to be ready to change,” says psychologist Alice Domar, Ph.D., author of Be Happy without Being Perfect (Crown, 2009). “Maybe what people call procrastination is actually contemplation.”
Several years ago, when Domar was writing a book with a health expert, she decided she needed to get more exercise.
“I spent the summer thinking about it and figuring out how I was going to do it, and once school started, boom!” she says.
Now, almost two years later, she has exercised every day.
“Someone might have said to me, ‘You’re procrastinating all summer,’ but no,” says Domar. “It took time to think about how I was going to do it.”
Choosing Not to Choose — Yet
Giving yourself time to gather information about a decision is likely to make you happier with your eventual choice. For example, if you’re making a major purchase, like a new car or an expensive television, you may want to do plenty of research on your options before you pull the trigger.
Choosing not to decide for a period of time can help you find the answer to a difficult decision.
“Procrastination allows the mind to search the extensive collection of information in the unconscious, where creative solutions to everyday dilemmas may surface,” says Burton Siegel, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Hinsdale, Illinois. “It takes time and usually requires a suspension of conscious thought or at least distraction so that the unconscious process can work as in a background program on computer.”
That process may take anywhere from several hours to a week or so.
“Lots of people say they have these ‘aha!’ moments in the shower,” agrees Domar. “So, again, it may look like procrastination, but maybe your brain just needs some time to backpedal a little bit before the answer comes to you.”
Too Much on Your Plate?
Delaying a task or decision may also be a sign that your circuits are already on overload.
“The research shows the average woman stresses about 12 things on an average daily basis, where the average man stresses about three things on a daily basis,” says Domar. “For a woman who already has 12 things she’s juggling, putting off handling the 13th may be just the right thing that she needs to do.”
Another bonus? Delaying a decision may eliminate the need to make it, saving you mental time and energy.
“Sometimes putting it off makes it go away,” says Domar.
Say you’re asked to serve on a nonprofit committee that you’re not that enthused about, and you tell the person who asked you that you need some time to consider it. With luck, by the time you respond, she’ll have found someone else to take your place — without you having to decide whether to participate.
Procrastination isn’t a character flaw; rather, it may wind up reminding you what’s really important. You wouldn’t put off taking a sick child to the doctor, but if you can’t get motivated to steam-clean your carpets, maybe that’s just not a priority for you.
You’ll always find time to do things you truly want and need to do. Things you put off just may not be meant to happen — at least not yet. BW
What’s Your Procrastination Personality?
What about you? Do you tend to tackle tasks immediately or put them off? Get a handle on your “procrastination personality” with this brief quiz:
1. At work, you’re assigned a research-heavy project that involves a lot of details — not your strong suit. You:
a. Start on it right away, to get it out of the way.
b. Promise yourself you’ll begin as soon as you can clear your desk … like next week.
c. Schedule it on your calendar two days before your deadline.
2. School starts next week! Do you have all of the supplies on your kids’ classroom lists?
a. Sure — I bought everything in June.
b. Not yet … it’s been a crazy summer.
c. Nope; I do it at the last minute, when everything is on sale.
3. To decide where you’ll go on your vacation, you:
a. Research, research, research to get the best deals.
b. Think about it but put off deciding — it’s always hard to get everyone to agree on a destination.
c. Pick several possibilities, then book at the last minutes to get a great deal on expedia.com.
4. At your monthly book club meeting, it’s your turn to choose the title. You:
a. Pick an old favorite you think your friends will enjoy.
b. Say you can’t decide and ask someone else to choose.
c. Ask your sister, a voracious reader, for a recommendation on the way to book club.
How’d you do? If you answered mostly A’s, you’re a “Task Tackler” for whom procrastination is no problem — you like getting things done and making decisions as soon as possible.
Mostly “B” answers mean you’re more of a “Passive Procrastinator,” who tends to feel overwhelmed, putting things off until the last minute.
Mostly “C” answers indicate that you’re an “Active Procrastinator,” who delays tasks but thrives on deadline pressure.
Kelly K. James is a freelance journalist (and Task Tackler) who lives outside Chicago with her family.