Why Procrastination is Actually Good For You...


Hey Thoughty2 here. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote his first symphony at the age of eight; at the age of eight most children are busy contemplating what dirt tastes like; Mozart was a genius in the truest sense of the word. But he was also a chronic procrastinator. In October 1787 Mozart’s newest and highly-anticipated two-part opera was due to premiere at Prague’s National Theatre. But the night before the premiere Mozart went out drinking with his friends, he told his friends that he had not yet written a single musical note of his latest opera. It was true, the opera didn’t even exist yet, because Mozart had put it off until literally the night before. Yet, that night, over just three hours, Mozart finally put quill to paper and scribbled down the entire musical notation for his brand new opera, whilst his wife kept him awake by reading folk tales to him, such as Cinderella.

During the performance the next day, the ink was still wet on the musical notations and the orchestra had not rehearsed once, yet all went smoothly and Mozart’s opera, called Don Giovanni, was very well received by the entire audience. So my advice to you is avoid starting that humongous and essential project until the night before. No, obviously that is terrible advice, because I’m willing bet that you’re not quite the genius that Mozart was. Martin Luther King also wrote his I Have a Dream speech at the very last minute, it is also widely rumoured that Abraham Lincoln quickly scribbled out his famous Gettysburg Address in just a few minutes during the train journey to Gettysburg. But again, don’t fool yourself into thinking you could do the same thing with your university thesis.

The slow claws of procrastination will eventually sink into us all. The bigger the task ahead of us the more likely we are to instead tune into MTV to find out what some morally and socially challenged teenager is doing for their sickly-sweet sixteenth. Because at the end of the day, we can always do it tomorrow and inevitably we will tell ourselves the same lie the following day. Procrastination is so prevalent amongst us all that the Germans have invented a short poem: “'Morgen, Morgen, nur nicht heute,' sagen alle faulen Leute," - "'Tomorrow, tomorrow, not today,' all the lazy people say."

Procrastination has even entered medical literature. Some people actually plan to procrastinate, telling themselves they don’t want to and won’t start a project until just before the deadline. The logic is that when one is under a supreme amount of stress they are more likely to put a greater amount of effort into the task. The medical world has named this “Student Syndrome”, no that’s not another one of my crappy jokes, it really has got that name.

Procrastination is always seen as a bad thing, an ugly quality in a person that should be eradicated. But what if we look at it from a different perspective? Some psychologists believe that procrastination can be a good thing and a powerful tool that we should all be utilising. I bet you’re thinking “wow, I should be actively doing absolutely nothing more often, do tell me more internet man” well, sort of. It’s only in very recent times that procrastination has been viewed by society as a negative quality in a person, for most of history it has been quite the opposite. The Ancient Greeks and Romans had great respect for the art of procrastination. After all Rome wasn’t built in a day, they spent the first thousand years figuring out the most sociable way to take a crap.

They believed strongly in the power of doing bugger all for many hours at a time. Instead of putting up that shelf that has been sitting there for a month or writing their memoirs they would quite happily choose to sit around in their togas all day, counting Medusa’s snakes. For they believed that it was only when we do nothing that our greatest ideas and epiphanies can manifest in our minds. High ranking ancient Greeks and Romans would go as far as only doing something when and if they absolutely had to. They had severe student syndrome.

It is often thought that professional tennis players are at the very top of their game because they are so fast. But in actuality, the complete opposite is true, the very best tennis players are the very best because they are the slowest of all players, they procrastinate more than other players; let me explain. When a tennis ball is served in your direction you have less than 500 milliseconds to gage its velocity and trajectory, position yourself correctly and ensure you deliver the perfect stroke to return it in the optimum way.

An amateur player will try to play as fast as possible, they will hastily rush to wherever the ball is heading, they will swing in a general direction, whatever feels right, in a split second. Whereas a professional will spend every one of those 500 milliseconds setting up the perfect return play. Their stroke has been perfected to such a level that they are able to free up more vital time to think about how the ball was served and the current position and gate of their opponent. Nothing is rushed, their response has been perfectly measured in a slow, calm fashion and thus their return play will be infinitely better than that of any amateur.

Sometimes by slowing down you can achieve greatness. For some people procrastinating is the only way they can get anything done at all and can, in some situations, produce higher quality and greater quantities of work. Let’s say you have a deadline looming, such as finishing your final college assignment and you should have spent three months doing it, but alas it’s the night before you’re supposed to hand it in and you’ve written the grand sum of two words, “title here”. In this extreme situation, which by the way studies show an astonishing 95% of students actually do on a regular basis, something supernatural happens. Panic starts to set in as it suddenly dawns on you that if you don’t write ten-thousand words tonight, you’ll walk away from two years of study without a qualification at all and so a flood of adrenaline is released in your brain. More precisely, your body releases a huge amount of epinephrine.

Epinephrine is like cocaine on cocaine. Studied have proved that when taking stimulant drugs such as cocaine and to a lesser extent caffeine, your productivity skyrockets, you are able to achieve many times the quantity of work in a given time period. Your ability to soak up and learn new information is also greatly enhanced. But epinephrine or \ is a far more powerful drug than even cocaine, under its influence you can achieve things you never thought possible, such as writing a ten-thousand word essay in one evening. Many people, myself included rely on this adrenaline release we experience when we are under severe pressure and facing a fast-approaching deadline to complete huge amounts of work that we would otherwise never even begin. So procrastination can, sometimes be a useful tool, but what causes it? Why do you sit up at 2am Googling your dog’s name instead of working?

There’s a secret about procrastination that not many know. Procrastination is not caused by laziness. When you decide to watch a video review of a toaster that you don’t or will never own, instead of working, it’s not because you are inherently lazier than your peers. In truth, research has shown that most people procrastinate because they are stressed. Think about the last time you procrastinated, did you have a huge dark cloud of stress hanging over you? Maybe you had a deadline fast approaching and you hadn’t even started on the work. Maybe you had to do your finances and you know by looking at the poor state of your finances it was going to cause you significant stress.

So what did you do instead? You did something completely different, you played video games, you ate, you watched useless videos like this one, you procrastinated. But what you were actually doing is relieving the stress surrounding the task you were supposed to be doing. Psychologists believe that procrastination is no different than smoking a cigarette, or drinking alcohol, it’s just a mechanism to relieve the stresses in your life, the problem with this mechanism is that in a cruel and ironic way it steals the precious time you so vitally need to solve the problem that is causing your stress in the first place.

Procrastination may be useful from time to time, getting that adrenaline flowing at the very last moment, so you can achieve superhuman levels of productivity. But chronic procrastination can really affect the path your life takes. You see, there are two kinds of tasks in life, deadline tasks and self-imposed tasks. Deadline tasks are when others have set a strict deadline, whether it’s your boss or educational institute. You may procrastinate instead of finishing such a task for many weeks, but when it comes to the final hours most people will use that kick of adrenaline and overwhelming panic to finish all the work and do a fairly okay job of it, in the end.

But things are completely different when you set yourself a task. Say you have a great idea for a business that you’d like to start, but the time and effort required to get it up and running is monumental, so most likely, you’ll never do it. You procrastinate eternally. You say you’ll join the gym and finally get into peak physical shape, but of course you never do. Why? Because you have no deadline, nobody is going to reprimand you or punish you if you don’t start up that business within the next six months, or attend the gym every day; Life will go on as it always has, and you will forever tell yourself that you will start working on it “next week”. This is called chronic procrastination, and it’s not a good thing, because you could potentially be denying yourself a life-changing opportunity. That hamster bathing suit company won’t start itself you know.

Many of us suffer from chronic procrastination, it’s hard-wired into our biology. We are programmed to avoid dangerous and potentially risky situations. Anything that strays out of the normal ebb and flow of our everyday lives such as starting a new business or taking up a new hobby could potentially be risky, that risk may come in the form of financial, social or even health. So our biology is pre-programmed to avoid that risk by never acting on it, by procrastinating indefinitely. But what if I told you there are some really simple cheats you can use to say goodbye to chronic procrastination forever and start actually achieving things.

The world’s best psychologists have been working on ways we can easily overcome procrastination for years and these are the secret techniques they have come up with, and without trying to sound too much like an infomercial, they are clinically-proven to work, I’ve tried them myself and they really do work.

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So what are those techniques you can use to finally start the work you really should have started two weeks ago. The first technique is to simply break down the huge task into tiny, really specific tasks and then set a time limit for each of those micro-tasks. Your first micro-task can be “write a list of tasks”, whatever you do, just don’t procrastinate on doing that. Even though this doesn’t actually reduce your overall workload, psychologically it feels so much more achievable and in ever way easier to accomplish a series of small tasks than one huge task, it’s similar to when I want to eat a very large pizza, I just take it one slice at a time. Every time you finish one of these micro-tasks your brain will release a shot of dopamine and you’ll feel accomplished, thus maintaining your moral and vastly increasing the likelihood that you’ll move onto the next task instead of giving up altogether.

The next trick sounds blatantly stupid, but it’s ridiculously powerful. Simply start, just force yourself to begin the work, but here’s the trick, tell yourself you’re only going to work for five minutes then you may continue whatever useless procrastination you were in the middle of. Just five minutes, that’s all. In every study where this technique was attempted with test participants, almost every person voluntarily continued working well past five minutes and many simply continued working on the task for several hours, even though they had told themselves that five minutes was all they had to do. Psychologically once you begin working on a task, even if it’s difficult, a natural urge to want to keep at it kicks in and it actually becomes harder to stop than to carry on. 99% of the difficulty of overcoming procrastination is actually starting the work, hence the old blank page writer’s block dilemma.

But because the hardest part is making a start you may have to force yourself to do so. In Homer’s Odyssey it tells of a fable involving the Greek King Ulysses. Ulysses and his crew were aboard a ship whilst passing an island full or sirens. You know, one of those many islands full of naked devil-women you see absolutely everywhere. The Sirens were singing in angelic voices and calling out to Ulysses to join them on their sexy rocky outcrop. Ulysses knew he could not resist this temptation and so he ordered his crew to forcibly tie him to a mast on the ship and block his ears, until the seductive Sirens were long out of sight. So what’s the lesson here? Sometimes when you are faced with a huge amount of work and a blank page or an island full of naked women, you just have to be forceful with yourself and make a damn start. Thanks for watching.