The Two Types of Procrastination

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I just finished reading a wonderful article on procrastination by James Surowiecki in the October 11 issue of The New Yorker. The money quote:

[I]t might be useful to think about two kinds of procrastination: the kind that is genuinely akratic and the kind that’s telling you that what you’re supposed to be doing has, deep down, no real point. The procrastinator’s challenge, and perhaps the philosopher’s, too, is to figure out which is which.

“Akratic” is a term defined earlier in the article, a word taken from the works of early Greek philosophers that refers to doing something against one’s better judgment.

In essence, Surowiecki is making the statement that we procrastinate in two ways: we either do something truly against our better judgment or we are simply acting on our deep impulse that we’re merely avoiding something that’s a waste of time. Either we’re procrastinating something worthwhile (a mistake) or something wasteful (a good move).

How do you distinguish between the two, though? How do you know, when you realize that you’ve been procrastinating, whether you’re sensibly discarding something useless or you’re really undermining your larger goals in life?

This is something I often find challenging in my own life. Yes, sometimes in the evenings, I don’t want to do the things on my to-do list. I want to play a game with my wife or make faces at my six month old son or just watch a movie. How do I know if my procrastination is really undermining things or if it’s just my subconscious making a good choice between the things I need to do?

Here’s how.

I do regular reviews of my to-do list. As I mentioned before, I keep an ongoing to-do list that just includes all of the stuff I need to get done in the next several days. As the days go by, I constantly add stuff to it (usually at the top) and make an effort to reduce the number of things on that list.

The problem is that I often end up with a bunch of junk on the list, urgent tasks that aren’t really important at all. So, I’ll wind up skipping many of the things at the top of the list and dig through the ones lower down.

This ends up completely confusing my own sense of what things are actually important and, without some work, renders my list of things to do completely useless. I have no sense of whether there really are important things to be done or whether my to-do list is a pile of junk.

The solution? Review the list. Kick off the unimportant stuff, even when you’re making difficult calls. I find more and more that if I have any doubt that something is important, I should just kick it off.

This way, when I have a window of opportunity to procrastinate, I can just look at my real to-do list. Is there something that needs done? If not, then I can do what I want to do.

I have a good grip on my personal and professional responsibilities and how they rate. How do I decide if something on my to-do list is actually important? I usually think of it in terms of what I actually want to accomplish in life – my bigger goals.

Here’s an example: we are not neurotic housecleaners. We don’t have a big mess all over the place, but we also don’t spend hours cleaning out the nooks and crannies of our garage. It would be very easy for us to constantly add cleaning tasks to our to-do list, but most of the time, we don’t. We might take care of one deep cleaning task a week, but aside from that, we have other things that are more important to us.

Another example comes from my college days. I used to keep a to-do list of all of my college assignments and then find that I never had time to complete them all. I’d have a list loaded with reading assignments that I hadn’t completed, so I’d skip by them to find the actual items that were due. A better method would have been to actually ask myself if this reading was important at all – for some classes, yes; for others, no – and then just never add the unimportant ones to the list.

It’s all about understanding what’s important and not clogging yourself up with the unimportant. For me, it’s that confusion that leads to a sense of being overwhelmed and then procrastinating on things that are actually important in my life. That kind of procrastination is costly, sometimes dangerous, and definitely worth avoiding.

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10 thoughts on “The Two Types of Procrastination

  1. Trent,

    I totally agree. That is a lot easier said than done. I think the biggest problem for so many of us is classifying what is important versus what is unimportant. Sometimes I only notice that I wasted a lot of time on something that was unimportant in retrospect.

  2. Sometimes what you want to do /is/ what you should be doing. There’s a balance. If I don’t play with my cat or do some simply fun stuff I start resenting the other goals I have. Not everything has to be done today.

    Also, figuring out whether something is important isn’t the last step. I can know something is important and still not do it because I have some sort of resistance to it. Maybe I’m trying to avoid an awkward, necessary conversation or maybe I’m trying to avoid working on my art, or whatever.

    Still, figuring out whether it’s important is a good place to start.

  3. I understand this is addressing the typical person but I can’t help adding my experiences as someone with ADHD: I procrastinate because I get a rush when I have a severely limited time to get something done.

    There are also symptoms that can cause what seems like “procrastination” like “flexible sense of time.” After I got on meds and managed my symptoms, I was still having procrastination struggles. It wasn’t until I recognized the adrenaline high that comes with my procrastination that I was able to effectively address the behavior.

  4. Maybe I just caught one wink too few last night, but I had to read the first paragraphs a few times to make sense of it… at first I thought you were saying that akratic procrastination meant skipping tasks that shouldn’t actually be done (I think that you meant that the skipping of the task is what shouldn’t be done?)

  5. Ruth, I believe you were right the first time. Sometimes we procrastinate because we know deep down that the task in question isn’t really important enough to bother with at all.

  6. @Johanna
    Thank you, that quote will stay with me for a while :)

    I used to read and respond to my email every morning. Now I do it at the end of the day. I find that most people have either resolved their issues without me by then, or, if it was urgent, they came to see me in person. I’m trying to take that approach with some tasks as well. If it can wait, let it and find something better to do. Sometimes, by the time you get back to something, you find out it’s no longer needs doing.

  7. I am not a GTD follower or anything, but I thought you are supposed to write down every task you think of. Then later, when you’re processing your inbox, you can take the time to think about the items you’ve added, and remove those that aren’t actually worth doing. Basically, the system you already have.

  8. @ Ruth

    I understood akratic procrastination to be the kind where we put off doing something we SHOULD be doing. This is the opposite of what rosa rugosa said.

    “Either we’re procrastinating something worthwhile (a mistake) or something wasteful (a good move).”

    The “procrastinating something worthwhile” is the akratic procrastination. The other one – procrastinating something wasteful – is the focus of the rest of the article.

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