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The Secret Benefits of Procrastination

Our society is obsessed with productivity and efficiency, and we despise procrastination. But it wasn't always so.

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Graham notes that when we procrastinate we don’t work on something. However, he says, we are always not working on something. In fact, whatever we are doing, we are by definition not working on everything else. For Graham, the issue is not how to stop procrastinating, since we will always be not working on something, and thus procrastinating. Instead, our real challenge is to figure out how to procrastinate well—how to work on something that is more important than the something we are not working on. In thinking about procrastination, Graham says what matters most is comparing what we are working on with what we aren’t.

Francesco Guerrera, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, learned how to manage his time by procrastinating during college. Not only did he develop the ability to write quickly at the last minute, but he learned how to manage a list of priorities, a skill he uses constantly to this day: “Now, most of it happens naturally. I have a bunch of things I have to do. The list of what I have to do within a certain time sort of forms itself. The other stuff is procrastinated.”

For projects that require different amounts of time, Guerrera makes separate lists. He describes a technique he and many other journalists use: “We have two sets of notebooks, a small one and a big one. The small one is for immediate day-to-day stories, the work we have to do right away. The big one is for big thoughts, features and stories that have some time. There’s an actual physical distinction between our immediate stories and the ones we can wait on. The physical form of two notebooks is our way of saying it’s too overwhelming to do both at the same time.”

Guerrera bristles at the suggestion that there is something wrong with his behavior. He told me he is really just managing delay: “This is not like traditional procrastination. It’s a way we form our priorities. It’s not that I’m delaying because I don’t want to do something. I’m delaying because I can’t. It’s out of necessity.” As Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.”

If we aren’t working at all, we are being slothful. If we are working on something unimportant, we are showing bad judgment. But if we are working on something important, then does it really make sense to judge us negatively for not working on something less important? If we put off errands because we are trying to cure cancer, are we really procrastinating? And if that is the meaning of procrastination, why is it so bad?

For Paul Graham, procrastination is all about trade-offs. We are constantly trading off what we are doing now against what we might do in the future. As long as we are doing that in a reasonable way, it doesn’t matter that we are putting some things off.

 

Frank Partnoy is the author of "F.I.A.S.C.O.," "Infectious Greed," and "The Match King." Formerly an investment banker at Morgan Stanley and a practicing corporate lawyer, he is one of the world’s leading experts on market regulation and is a frequent commentator for the Financial Times, the New York Times, NPR, and CBS’s 60 Minutes. Partnoy is a graduate of Yale Law School and is the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance and the founding director of the Center for Corporate and Securities Law at the University of San Diego.

 
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