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Go Ahead, Procrastinate
It isn’t inaction, it’s intuitive prioritization
I recently met with an investor (we’ll call him Jake) who was being hard on himself because he was stalling on a long-term project. Jake supports a prominent VC and our chat was during a rare week when he didn’t have a mountain of work in front of him. He said he should be working on career projects but couldn’t bring himself to do them.
We’ve all been there. The last week of the year, the end of a grueling project, or the rare respite when the boss takes a vacation. Teleported from the land of urgent work, we find ourselves with precious time and for some reason, we squander it.
What’s going on here?
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t think we are unproductively pushing off important work. Instead, ambitious people are subconsciously deprioritizing ideas and choosing to spend time on better things.
For people who get things done, procrastination is often intuitive prioritization.
Has this ever happened to you? You stared at a task on your to-do list for weeks until you eventually crossed it off and said, “Forget it. I’m not going to do it.” You left emails in your inbox to respond to another time and realized days later that you didn’t need to. Archived.
We can see this procrastination as inaction, or we can see it as a tool for reevaluating our work as we’re doing it.
When we spark new ideas, we assess their value in isolation. The ones worth doing go on our lists and we create the intention to complete them.
What we don’t do in those moments is evaluate our ideas against all the other things we could do. Procrastination describes when our intention of manifesting our clever ideas doesn’t align with our intention of completing them right now. As the days go by and those intentions fail to line up, we lament our poor use of time.
What if we trusted that deep down, we’re doing what makes sense to do?
When I asked Jake how he was using his time instead, he said he went for long runs and made plans with friends—two things he loves doing. When I suggested that he might not be procrastinating, and instead prioritizing what his mind and body needed, something shifted. The guilt washed away and owning his intentions made him remember his choices with a smile.
Procrastination is like prioritization’s charmed, scatterbrained cousin. Whereas prioritization is calculated and disciplined on the way to achieving its goals, its cousin procrastination annoyingly accomplishes the same things by accident, effortlessly progressing through life while looking directionless to the outside. The destination is the same, but getting there feels different.
Prioritization is procrastination with intent.
Not all procrastination is intuitive and healthy. Scroll Twitter endlessly and you’ll waste your time between meetings. Pack right before your flight and you’ll leave your toiletries at home. Stall leaving a lousy job and you’ll delay starting the rest of your life. Yes, when I say this will happen to you, I mean it has happened to me.
There are consequences when you let yourself off the hook and avoid the hard things. Intuiting your way through life makes it challenging to accomplish long-term goals, and to do the hard and important things.
In his Ted Talk and article Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, Tim Urban blames this on the Instant Gratification Monkey inside our brains. According to him, a monkey who wants to do what is easy and fun takes control of the wheel from the Rational Decision Maker who wants to do what makes sense. Chronic procrastinators are those who struggle most with keeping the monkey under control.
Sadly, he says, “Long-term procrastination has made [people] feel like a spectator in their own lives.”
I have a more generous take. Procrastination isn’t watching your life go by. Sometimes, it’s a healthy and intuitive form of prioritization.
I’m not saying let the Instant Gratification Monkey drive. I’m saying sometimes, the Rational Decision Maker is guiding you better than you even realize. Rather than beat yourself up, trust that you know what’s best for you.
And go ahead, procrastinate.
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