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Procrastination as a positive productivity strategy

Reading this amusing book review on willpower by Will Self (link from Jenny Davidson) reminds me that recently [actually, several months ago; recall that most of this blog is published on a delay], I felt frustrated that I wasn’t getting anything done. I think that when I write this sort of thing it annoys people, because I’m lucky enough to be in a position to get a lot done—projects ranging from the ethics column to Stan—but I get frustrated when I spend a week trying to work, and then when the week’s over, I realize that all I did was respond to emails, review a bunch of journal submissions and grant proposals, and spend a lot of time staring into space while putting off whatever it was that I really thought I should be doing.

I thought and thought, and I decided that my best strategy is what I call positive procrastination. Procrastination is of course typically considered a bad thing (or, as ironic-style writers would write, a Bad Thing). But you can actually use it, judo-like, to your advantage. The key is to put important items on the procrastination plate, so that whey you put off doing task A, you move to useful task B.

For example, if I have to prepare a class and I don’t want to do it, I’ll set my procrastination task to be revising some article. Or vice-versa. The key is to set the procrastination list ahead of time. It really works.

For me, blogging is the last line of procrastination. And blogging really isn’t so bad. It’s a public service, I can use it to promote my ideas, and I can recycle some of the material later. It can help to try out some ideas over and over again in different forms. In this as in other areas of writing, George Orwell is my model.

Anyway, I was getting really frustrated about getting nothing done, and then positive procrastination saved the day. I don’t think this trick will work indefinitely; at some point I’ll have to come up with some new way to get myself to work. But, in the meantime, I wanted to pass this on to you. I’m sure it’s an idea that’s been written and broadcast many times before in different forms. The other important part, for me, is to reflect upon the audience. For whom am I ultimately writing this article or doing this computation?


  1. Erin Jonaitis says:

    You might be amused by this site, in that same spirit:

  2. jg says:

    reminds me a bit of Structured Procrastination,

  3. Fremby says:

    ” Procrastination is not the problem. It is the solution. “

    — Ellen DeGeneres

  4. Karl says:

    Also see Benchley’s humorous essay How To Get Things Done (in the book The Benchley Roundup, but can also be read at

  5. Corey says:

    “The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators.


    Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.

    Good in a sense, at least. The people who want you to do the errands won’t think it’s good. But you probably have to annoy them if you want to get anything done. The mildest seeming people, if they want to do real work, all have a certain degree of ruthlessness when it comes to avoiding errands.”

    Paul Graham, Good and Bad Procrastination

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