The pros of procrastination
Why you don’t have to do everything—right this minute
Monday, June 22, 2009
I hate being indecisive. When faced with major decisions—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 three grandkids’ worth of experience.) Procrastinators have always gotten a bad rap, but putting off decisions—especially hard ones—may actually pay off. A study published last year found that making choices depletes your self-control, as the same area of the brain controls both self-regulation and making choices. 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" aren’t paralyzed at all by indecision to act. Instead, they make a deliberate decision to put things off because they thrive on working under pressure.
What kind of procrastinator are you?
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.
But putting off a decision or chore may 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, 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—at least not yet
Giving yourself time to gather information about a decision is likely to make you happier with your eventual choice. "I’m a big research guy, so if I’m buying something I make sure I have all the options—whether it’s a car or a TV I want," says Fred Maringer, father of two who lives in Downers Grove. "I have to have it in my head that’s exactly what I want to do—it makes me feel more secure in my decision."
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, a clinical psychologist in Hinsdale. "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 parenting and personal 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.
Procrastination isn’t necessarily 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.
Parents in particular can benefit by procrastinating about certain things. When my son was closing in on 3 years old, I worried he should be done with diapers already. Yet Ryan showed zero interest in potty-training. While I worried that he should be out of diapers, I consciously chose to wait.
After his third birthday, we bought a Diego "big boy" potty, plenty of "big boy" underwear and started potty training. It took just a few days and less drama than I had anticipated. It’s only one example of how procrastination can make you a better, and less-stressed, parent.
Kelly James-Enger is a freelancer, mom and task tackler who lives in Downers Grove with her husband, son and golden retriever, Sugar Cookie.