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I Procrastinated by Writing This Post

How my dawdling may have saved a person's life.

I am a college professor, and I don’t have what one might call “free time.” This is because time in my line of work is not regimented. I can always do more – I can do more research, write more academic articles, prepare more conference papers, and so on. But one needs time off. It would be unwise – not to mention unhealthy – to reduce life to work even if you are in love with your work and derive meaning from it.

Sometimes, however, taking time off amounts to procrastination. Some days, I take time off even though I don’t need any. I am not too tired. I don’t have guests coming over. I am not physically unwell. There is no particular reason for me to not be working. I just don’t. Instead, I choose a diversion.

I am probably doing that now in writing this post. You may be doing the same in reading it. (Someone in my social network once created a site called "The Ultimate Productivity Blog." If you go to it, you only ever see one page, and one line, "You should be working.") Should we feel guilty? Should both of us be doing something else?

Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Man in front of a computer, looking bored and distracted
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

Not necessarily. While I’ve argued elsewhere that procrastination can turn into self-sabotage, here I want to look at the issue from the other side and explore the upsides of procrastination, or of certain kinds of it. For not all varieties of procrastination are born equal.

It is true more generally that our tendencies often have both adaptive and maladaptive varieties. If we want to free ourselves of a bad variety, it is sometimes best to try to turn it into one of its better brethren rather than attempt to stifle it. Nervous before a public speaking event? Instead of making an effort to calm down, you could try using the boost in energy — for that is what nervousness, at one level, is — to your advantage. Prone to rumination? Maybe use the insights to write a poem or draw something. Feeling bad about your project when you compare it to the better project of a coworker? Derive from the comparison motivation to produce better work. (Life would be likely both lonely and tedious if you were much better at what you do than everyone else.)

Activity and passivity

Some ways to procrastinate involve mindless activities – watching whatever is on TV even though you are not really interested, scrolling through a feed and reacting to articles on the basis of (likely misleading) headlines, without reading the articles. But other ways to dawdle are not like that. I have gifts that were handmade by friends for me. I assume they were procrastinating while making them. Yet I really appreciate those gifts, and no less importantly, my friends were not simply sitting idly by in making them: They were working on a creative project, albeit in a non-professional capacity.

Some people do painting or carpentry, others go on long hikes, still others blog, or learn a new language. Eminent psychologist Martin Seligman says that he spends 4 hours every day playing bridge with other people.

Working on a new project or mastering skills you don’t have are activities both pleasurable and meaningful. Unlike mindless TV consumption, you are unlikely, at the end of an afternoon spent perfecting your painting technique, to feel you have wasted your time.


Much of what I do when I procrastinate is listen to books and podcasts while walking. This has helped me build a broad store of knowledge that comes in handy in both my teaching and in my conversations with other people. If I spent more of that time doing academic work, I would produce more articles, but I would be able to contribute less in conversation. Exclusive focus on a narrowly circumscribed problem of interest to few is likely to make you a good conversation partner for those few only.

This is by no means to suggest that no one should ever be laser-focused on a single issue. Many of the greatest human achievements are likely a result of a mania-like obsession. That might be what it takes to write the best novel of the century, or to come up with a solution to a recalcitrant scientific problem. My point is simply that here, as elsewhere, there are tradeoffs.


There have been cases when I was able to direct people to resources helpful to them, because I’d happened to learn something about an issue important to them while procrastinating. On one occasion, this may have saved a person’s life. It was this: I listened to an interview with Rich Roll, a man who had started very well (Stanford degree, well-paying job, athletic achievements) but whose life had gone downhill after he developed serious drug and alcohol problems. Roll alienated his friends, his health was deteriorating rapidly, and he even ended up in jail. Yet, he managed to turn his life around. Today, he is an author, athlete, and wellness guide.

I shared Roll’s story with someone in a similar position – a very talented man who had developed an alcohol problem. As a result, his wife had divorced him, his parents had disowned him, he was physically unwell, and his private business – which had previously been highly successful – was sinking.

Roll’s story, it appeared, was just what the other person needed to hear. It gave him hope that he could climb out of the well and resume living. He looked into the matter further. How exactly had Roll done it? He drew inspiration from the story I shared and subsequently, his life took a positive turn.

I would have never come across Roll’s story had I not procrastinated in the way I did that day. Without that story, a still young and talented person who'd adopted self-destructive habits may not be alive anymore.

You, reader, may have never come across Roll’s story if not for the present post either. And you too may know someone who needs to hear it. I may be procrastinating in writing this post but not in a way I would necessarily want to avoid. And you too may be procrastinating in reading it, but that’s not all there is to it there either.

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