In Praise of Procrastination: Why wasting time can actually be a good thing

By Lise Funderburg

September 2003

When I sit down at my desk – especially if I’m starting a writing assignment or if the one I’m wrestling with is going poorly—I am consumed (consumed!) by the acute and irrepressible need to get up again. I have to go to the kitchen, as if something new might have found its way into the refrigerator since I last looked 20 minutes before. I must see if the mail has come, or the paper, which I then read. I’ll wander into the bathroom, lean against the sink and examine the landscape of my face in the mirror. I look for and attack blemishes, tweeze wayward eyebrow hairs and occasionally give my teeth a good floss. The cruddy buildup at the base of my electric toothbrush (the origin of which I try hard not to think about) invariably needs cleaning. It’s also essential that I go to the gym, which is near the fruit seller, which is up the road from the discount nursery. In that same loop are the cardboard-recycling plant, the liquor store and the cheap gas station. If I have enough quarters, I’ll vacuum the car, then pay $6 to be transported through the Lammscloth automatic car wash.

I’ve always assumed that procrastination signals various emotional maladies: an anxious spirit, fear of conflict and failure, a self-sabotaging perfectionism (if you can’t do it right, why bother at all?) or the delusional hope against hope that tomorrow will be a better day to start X or launch into Y. While no one who knows me well has ever accused me of being a perfectionist, every other one of these explanations applies to my own escapist proclivities to some degree or another. Worse, when I find myself slacking off, engaged in something like waterproofing all my winter shoes when I really should be writing, I am beset by guilt. What I’m doing is wrong. And not just because I’m wasting time that could be spent on priority project A, but because I believe that good people are defined not only by output but by method. Growing up, the prevailing ethos at home held that the best way to do anything was in a straight line. Thus, my zigzagging feels to me like a moral infraction.

Yet I know I couldn’t sustain as many friendships or keep my house in order or my thank-you notes up to date if I didn’t do these things when I should be setting up interviews or reading research files. The fact is, goofing off works for me as much, if not more, than it does against me. My procrastination efforts feed my gluttonous appetite for enjoying life, but beyond that, they can also be shockingly productive. I’ll do anything to put off writing, and I’ll do it well. The piles of Polarfleece hats my sister and I sewed for a winter crafts fair sold out completely. The merits of my dried cherry scones are widely known. I’ve won first prize for my quilting and an honorable mention in a citywide gardening competition.

Even more valuable, perhaps, is the way procrastinating puts whatever real project is at hand on simmer. When I’m stuck on the first sentence of an article, mindless activities like ‘weeding my flower patch present an opportunity for reflection. It’s as if certain thoughts have to find me and, once they do, can latch on only if I’ve left enough mental space for them. I’ve sorted out story structures while being lulled by the swish-swish of the car wash. I’ve solved financial problems on the treadmill. I’ve figured out how to end arguments with loved ones while waiting in line to pay for produce.

It’s true that I’m expending energy on these diversions, but I am also building up steam. I may hide from certain tasks with meticulously maintained pedicures and overpruned crab apple trees, but at some point, I can rewire no more lamps, surf no more websites, eat no more snacks. All that’s left, finally, is the urge to write. And once I start, once I’ve broken through the repellent blank-ness of the page, I no longer need to get up from my chair at every turn. I still get distracted, but the diversions are fewer and farther between.

Maybe all of my sidestepping is simply the long and snaky path I need to take to arrive at the destination that matters most—creative fulfillment and, of course, the paycheck that puts food on my table. At least that’s what I tell myself. After half a lifetime of perfecting the dilly and honing the dally, it’s clear that, in the words of my favorite philosopher—basketball player Alien Iverson, “it’s all good.” Or, more accurately, it’s all productive. There may be a better way to phrase that thought, but right now I’ve got to go plant the daylilies.