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Why “Positive Procrastination” is (Mostly) a Scam

Every week, it seems, someone publishes an article about how procrastination can be good for you. This week it's The New York Times.

I am all about using whatever productivity techniques work for you. But in my experience pro-procrastination techniques work for very few people, and are actually more likely to undermine your productivity than boost it. The below piece—an excerpt from my forthcoming book on productivity for undergraduates—explains why. I hope you find it useful, and if you do, please share it!

Why “Positive Procrastination” is (Mostly) a Scam

People procrastinate in two basic ways: “unproductively” and “quasiproductively.”

Unproductive Procrastination (UP) is when, instead of your scheduled work, you do a low-value activity like video games, Web surfing, or television. (Yes, in some cases these can be high value. But usually they aren't, especially if they're being used as a means of procrastination.)

Quasiproductive Procrastination (QP) is when you procrastinate via an activity that is nominally useful but less urgent or necessary than what you're supposed to be doing. The classic example is when you suddenly decide, at the moment you're supposed to start work, that the laundry that's been sitting there for a week urgently needs to get done.

QP is more dangerous than UP because it gives the illusion of being productive. You tell yourself, “Well, I didn't work on my paper today, but at least I got in a great workout!” Or, “At least I did my committee work!” Moreover, others will frequently encourage your QP. Those working on a project with you will think you're peachy for doing more than your share; your boss will think you're a standup gal for working extra shifts; and the people at the gym will give you props for dedication.

Can you can see why QP is so tricky to beat? At the same time you're fleeing from your work, others are pulling you toward their own agendas. It's a double whammy.

A particularly sneaky—and common—form of QP is when you procrastinate on one part of a project by overworking on another. Examples:

  • Researching your paper to death but never writing it.
  • Endlessly rewriting one section (often, the beginning), but never getting around to the rest.
  • Endlessly revising the final draft but never submitting it.

In cases like these, you may feel like you're doing your work, but really what you're doing is busywork that doesn't advance the project.
QP and The Myth of “Positive Procrastination”
Some productivity experts promote “positive procrastination” (also known as “good procrastination” or “productive procrastination”) as a productivity technique. They usually suggest that you start your work sessions with some easy work, and then ease your way into the harder or scarier stuff.

In my experience, however, positive procrastination only works for people who don't have much of a procrastination problem to start with. The main problem is that it does nothing to address the disempowerment at the root of procrastination. Because of that, many people who try it will get “stuck” on the easy stuff and never get around to doing the hard.

Positive procrastination is, in other words, a recipe for QP.

Positive procrastination is also dangerous because procrastination thrives on rationalization and denial. Your inner procrastinator will gladly use, “Hey, I'm procrastinating positively!” as a reason to avoid work.

So, forget about positive procrastination—and remember that the goal of productivity work is to be able to sit down and do what you had planned to do at the time you had planned to do it. You want to be able to glide calmly into your chair and start working with a kind of Zenlike nonattachment, focusing on the moment itself rather than past problems or future hopes. And instead of trying to "procrastinate" your way into that groove, use the "writercopter."

This way of working might seem impossible right now, but you'll probably be able to master it with just a little practice. Not 100% of the time—we're not programmable robots—but often enough that you'll be pleased with both the quantity and quality of your output.

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