In Defence Of Procrastination: When To Prioritise Doing Nothing

Procrastination gets a bad rap, likely because we use it in excess. Putting too many things off is a problem, but the opposite isn’t necessarily much better. Last year I managed to completely eradicate procrastination from my life, only to learn that it has its purpose. Sometimes putting things off until tomorrow is the healthiest choice you can make. Here’s why.

Photo by tjeffersion (Shutterstock) and Andresr (Shutterstock).

Back in December of 2011, I implemented Seinfeld’s productivity secret to help me get things done. It helped me prioritise all the things I wanted to do and I became more productive than I’d ever hoped. Suddenly I actually exercised every day, my apartment was impossibly clean, I’d written stories I’d put off for years and finished several development projects that had been sitting on the back burner for even longer. Every day I’d accomplish a little more of each task and I’d get to put a big red X on the calendar. The process showed me how to get things done by making them a constant priority. It felt like I had a superpower — like there was more time in every day. It encouraged me to just get started, and it wasn’t long before that red X on the calendar didn’t matter anymore. If I made something a priority I’d just do it. I didn’t need anything to motivate me other than the fact that I knew I could get it done, and that’s where my problems began.

I realised this when I woke up one morning at 5:00 AM in a state of confusion that almost defies description. It seemed as though my subconscious was trying to process work I hadn’t even thought of doing yet, and it took on everything at once. The moment I woke up I’d thought I was working, but I had absolutely no idea what I was doing or why I was doing it. It was as if 10 tasks had formed to make one giant, completely non-sensical undertaking that had an indecipherable goal. After 30 minutes of trying to figure it out, I realised the problem: I’d made such a good habit out of getting things done that my brain didn’t really understand anything else. I’d prioritised work, hobbies, exercise, chores and even social activities. Every day was a puzzle where I’d try to fit together as many tasks as I could. I’d actually do them, go to sleep, and start up again the next day. There was no break. I’d completely neglected to prioritise one thing: nothing.

Our brains and bodies need quiet time where they’re not doing anything at all. This doesn’t mean zoning out in front of the television for an hour and it doesn’t mean getting a full eight hours of sleep per night. It means setting aside time to process the events of the day, and perhaps the days before. It means letting your brain rid itself of all the excess thought you’ve accumulated from constantly doing. For some, meditation might work. For me, I’ve started taking a walk before the sun goes down. Most of my work is done indoors, so the change of scenery is calming and helpful. Walking alone, with no company from another person or the stimulation of music, a podcast, or anything else, gives my brain the time it needs to let go of any excess thoughts it had been carrying around. The activity, itself, is mostly irrelevant. The important aspect of the activity is that it is boring. It is that lack of stimulation that’s important. Brains need breaks, too.

This isn’t a new concept. It’s something people have known and rediscovered for many more years than any of us have been alive. It’s also something that’s easy to forget, especially in the face of the pleasure of accomplishment. Just because we have the time and the ability doesn’t mean we’re obligated to use it do get something done. What’s possible isn’t always right. Sometimes what can be put off until tomorrow should be something rather than nothing at all.

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