You’ve put off a project for weeks. You haven’t started on the big presentation. And a 10,000-word report is due next week. Instead of wondering why you delay important work or berating yourself for laziness, acknowledge the role procrastination plays at work.
The word procrastination derives from the Latin verb procrastinare, which translates literally to “put off until tomorrow.” One of the most creative and productive inventors and artists of all time was a chronic procrastinator. Leonardo da Vinci spent 16 years painting the Mona Lisa and 13 years painting The Virgin of the Rocks. He spent more time on creative works than his peers and once said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
When he died in 1519, da Vinci left behind dozens of sketches and plans for unfinished projects. Most of us don’t complain about how late da Vinci was with his creative works; instead we admire his achievements.
Although some people like starting a difficult project immediately, work styles vary. Professor Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University in Chicago argued that 20% of people “make procrastination their way of life.”
In other words, some people will file their tax returns or ship a project only at the last minute. That doesn’t necessarily mean these people are lazy or unmotivated. Instead they approach deadlines differently from the doer who acts immediately.
Procrastination offers time for letting creative ideas percolate. Critics attacked the final season of Game of Thrones for feeling rushed.
The series was first broadcast in 2011. Since then, some fans have accused author George R. R. Martin of procrastinatin. In 2012, after the publication of his much anticipated book A Dance With Dragons, Martin hinted at this problem to HBO:
“It’s a slow process the way I write, especially books of this size that are as large and complex as they are. It’s still a slow process. I am aware of the TV series moving along behind me like a giant locomotive, and I know I need to lay the track more quickly, perhaps, because the locomotive is soon going to be bearing down on me.”
Martin didn’t finish his next book The Winds of Winter before the series ended. Although some readers are understandably disappointed, Martin’s delay is contributing to demand for a better alternative ending to the series.
The Role of Procrastination
The word procrastination also derives from the ancient Greek word akrasia, which means doing something against our better judgment. In other words, we know it’s not always a good idea to delay, but we do it anyway. What if a delay could help improve the quality of your work?
Consider how procrastination helps prevent burnout. You can’t sustain intense focus on a project without occasionally stopping for a break.
Consider the weight lifter or endurance athlete who builds days off into their training schedule. They know taking a break from training enables their body to repair. They can hit the track or gym with renewed vigor the next day.
Procrastination is a useful reflection tool too. Perhaps you were wasting time on an unimportant part of a project. Or is the quality of your work slipping because you haven’t stopped to review progress or refine your approach?
A lot of modern work is tedious. Many people have a painful amount of paperwork to process, emails to answer or reports to file.
If you’re worried about your team procrastinating, acknowledge that people’s work styles vary. What’s more, they might even sprint toward the finish line when a deadline draws nearer.
We’re not robots built to work on every item on our to do list without pause, reflection or a break. Sometimes procrastination might help you unlock new thinking or recharge. Instead of stigmatizing procrastination, accept its role in the rhythm of work life.