Procrastination as a Virtue: When Putting It Off Pays Off
I once heard someone confidently state the reason it takes so long for cars to move when a traffic light turns green: people are inattentive. It’s an easy assumption to make, but if "people" are anything like me, we fixate on the rear windows, waiting for brake light after brake light to vanish—until it’s our turn and we fly through the yellow.
To me, procrastination feels a lot like this. It’s not so much willful neglect as it is being caught in those irritating moments when inspiration isn’t there and words are falling flat. The immeasurable progress of waiting to find my stride begins to juxtapose itself against a very measurable deadline, and that is a creative’s worst nightmare.
Calvin & Hobbes author and cartoonist Bill Watterson said, “You can’t just turn on creativity like a faucet. You have to be in the right mood. What mood is that? Last-minute panic.” This is the phenomenon that frustrates creatives: the thing we want most—a beautiful, finished work of art—never comes automatically, and so often we feel like we’re at the back of the line.
My sister is an amazing ceramist, and she actively works on a piece in only the last 20% of her process. The first 80% is spent on research and planning. To those around her, this may look like an awful lot of sitting around—that stereotype that says creatives keep their heads in the clouds. And many times we ourselves feel like we are doing nothing when really we are just in the intangible beginning stages. Since this line between production and process is so easily blurred, I think it would be helpful to reset our understanding of true procrastination.
To procrastinate means to delay action. Despite our culture’s sour connotation of the word, this definition is actually quite neutral. In fact, I can think of a few situations in which procrastination is a great idea, like not using Twitter to vent a frustration or postponing a big purchase while paying off student debt. Also, at times there is no choice but to wait, like at a traffic light.
Truth be told, sometimes procrastination is unwise. We all know this from the times when we started our research paper the day before deadline. While procrastination can take many different forms, it starts with what I believe is a natural, human inclination to save energy, avoid pain or failure, or all of the above. Instead of fearing it, what if we could find a way to embrace it as part of the creative process?
Procrastination in a Different Light
Early in the summer, I planned to take my kids to the farmer’s market, by myself, 34 weeks pregnant, in 90-degree weather. A terrible idea, but local, organic produce is my weakness (don’t judge).
As I struggled to help my son with his sandals (ever seen a preggo try to bend over?), I realized how much time had passed. Despite my strong desire for an artisanal salad, I lost motivation and began to coast. I let my son wear his shoes on the wrong feet, and I let my daughter carry her “life-sized” diaper bag to the car. If we were going to be late, we were going to do it decisively.
We arrived with 20 minutes to spare, so parking cost only a quarter. Win. Because of the time, a locally renowned pastry shop was selling off their day’s inventory at half price, which left me serenely situated: pushing a stroller of content, galette-faced kids, drinking iced coffee and shopping for greens.
In this case, what began as procrastination turned out to be great timing. There were a few things working in my favor in this situation that I think are important to note:
A Worthwhile Goal
Though the process of getting there was a challenge, my decision to pursue sunshine and healthy food was never called into question. If we pursue things that are actually important to us, chances are we will succeed one way or another. Where we can appreciate procrastination here is that it can cause us to neglect the little things that aren’t pertinent anyway—like correcting my son’s footwear.
An Attainable Goal
There have been times when procrastination has caused me to flat out fail. But in retrospect, the failure was always something I had no business attempting—like the time I planned to open an online shop for my knitwear during the same season I would be birthing my third child. Of course that did not happen. Twenty minutes at a farmer’s market = much more tame. It’s valuable to recognize the things for which we simply do not have capacity, and sometimes procrastination can act as a trustworthy cue to reevaluate our priorities.
Lots of energy can be saved when we stop trying to achieve perfection. Leonardo da Vinci is possibly the most famous procrastinator ever. He said, “Life is pretty simple: You do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else.” This concept is invaluable to anyone who struggles with writer’s block. If something isn’t working, ditch it and try something else. When we get hung up on perfection, we paralyze ourselves with a self-imposed standard that discourages learning, exploration, risk taking and true creativity.
If we can can approach procrastination with intentionality as a natural player in our creative comings and goings, rather than the negative connotation it receives from our results-driven culture, we can begin to reap the benefits. Where in the past you may have been trapped by a fear of failure or punished yourself for being “lazy,” you can begin to see how procrastination can be helpful in keeping us from churning out bad artwork, doing unnecessary tasks, or paying twice as much for pastries. Procrastination is part of a healthy process that cultivates faith, patience, and flexibility in our creative endeavors—and makes the final product all the more satisfying. Now get back to work.