Read more from Slate's special issue on procrastination.
Seth Stevenson chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
Dear chronically procrastinating young person,
Slate has asked me to offer you a few words of advice—as I, too, am a procrastinator. Always have been. In college, I'd start 10-page papers after midnight on the day they were due. Half my memories of this period involve screaming at my printer to print faster, ripping the pages from its maw, and then sprinting to my professor's office with moments to spare, sweat streaming down my face.
Why did I subject myself to so much stress, instead of starting my work earlier like "normal" people do? Well, you've no doubt heard all manner of theories regarding the root cause of procrastination. Fear of failure. Crippling perfectionism. Abnormally low type-2 phloxiplaxitus levels.
I'm here to tell you that it was none of these things. The root cause of my procrastination, in technical terms, is this: I'm lazy. Extremely lazy.
Don't judge, pal—you're lazy, too. It's why you procrastinate. When there's a difficult, disagreeable, or tedious chore that needs to get done, guess what? You don't want to do it. So you don't. Until you have to.
It's just that simple, my slothful friend. And guess what else? The trick to overcoming procrastination is even simpler. Ready? Here it is:
Get off your fat badonk and stop procrastinating. Right now. No, not after the Gilmore Girls rerun ends. Now now.
Will you do this? No. You will not. You will dabble at the crossword for a while. Later, you might get a yogurt. Eventually, you'll start reading pointless crap on the Internet. You see, you're doing it as we speak! Because: You are lazy.
Understand that this will never, ever change. You will always be lazy, and you will always procrastinate. I know it's tough for you to hear, but it's a harsh truth that you need to internalize.
I'm serious about this. It's bad enough that you're so damn lazy. People like you can't afford to be delusional on top of all your other problems. Oh, I'm sure you imagine yourself growing out of this silly procrastination phase. In the future, you'll get an early jump on projects, work at a steady pace, and always finish ahead of schedule. You'll take the time to do things right—instead of nipping under the wire in a rush of half-assed, flailing chaos.
It's a beautiful dream, my indolent chum. And I'm here to shatter it. Again, I speak from experience in these matters. When I was young, my procrastination was merely debilitating. As I age, it gets far worse.
Take, for instance, this assignment. I first learned of it two weeks ago and, since then, I've gotten really, really superb at Guitar Hero III. Now I'm awake in the middle of the night, facing a deadline that's hours away, and I'm guzzling caffeine and just getting started. Crikey, I haven't done a lick of research! My editor specifically asked me to find historical examples of procrastination. Hold on, gonna Google a couple things …
OK, back now. It turns out the ancient Greeks may well have procrastinated. And Leonardo da Vinci left a whole stack of unfinished projects. Also—this is conjecture on my part, but seems plausible—I'm guessing the people of Pompeii spent their final moments wishing they'd been a bit more on the ball about fleeing that bubbling volcano.
"But Seth," you interject, as I take a Rubik's Cube from my desk drawer and begin fiddling with it, "what about that kid in my econ section who's always on top of things? He makes an outline of his paper two weeks in advance, writes a rough draft, then does further research and revisions. Couldn't I be more like that kid if I put my mind to it?"
No. You couldn't. That kid will grow up to be a powerful politician or business leader. You won't.
And that's OK! Some of the kindest, most interesting people are pretty lazy, and not at all powerful. Take da Vinci: He was totally awesome, despite—as my extensive research suggests—being an easily distractible scattershot. His very strength was that he allowed his mind to wander where it pleased, instead of always locking into the task at hand. Sure, maybe you wouldn't want da Vinci as your air-traffic controller. But you'd definitely want to have a beer with him—am I right? And despite his problems knuckling down, the guy produced oodles of brilliant, imaginative work. Which is where my advice comes in.
Stop resisting and embrace your procrastination. Don't agonize in front of a blank computer screen. Don't sit around for hours—intending to start your work any moment now—only to find that in the end you've accomplished zilch, save for ruining your own day.
You could instead, for instance, work on a small, tangential aspect of the assignment. Some weird take on things—one that doesn't make you miserable. This may be of little direct application, but there's a chance it could also pay off, kick-starting a new line of thought or adding nuance to your final result.
Or, better, take a walk outside. Read a book for pleasure. Roll a spliff and share it with a friend.
You're going to procrastinate anyway, so you may as well enjoy the time you're stealing from your tasks. While that grind in your econ class is toiling, you're becoming a more relaxed, quirkier, less-programmed person. You nurture the creative sprouts that take root only in long hours of idleness. You're open to soulful experiences that lie only beyond the bounded worlds of work and study.
Of course, this is all dependent on there being a deadline waiting at the end of your walkabout. For true procrastinators, nothing gets done without a deadline. As we say in journalism: The deadline is your friend. And when that deadline looms too near to procrastinate any longer, you need to take care of business. Crank it out, baby.
Executed correctly, this method is in fact terrific practice for maintaining your cool in stressful work environments. Pressing deadline anxiety can be channeled into an extreme level of focus. If you can train yourself to complete your assignments under pressure, quickly and efficiently, you will always find yourself in demand.
OK, fully bumping up against the clock here. Time to get this thing to my editor. A few important questions remain, so I'll attempt to answer them in our waning moments together:
1) Could I have done a better job on this assignment if I'd started sooner? Quite possibly.
2) But would I really have used that additional time to my advantage, instead of just doing the crossword and watching Gilmore Girls reruns? Very doubtful.
3) Am I crazy good at Guitar Hero III? Oh my, yes. I'm money on the multibutton combos now, and I can even nail some of the faster solos. You should come over and play some time. Maybe bring that spliff.
Your shiftless amigo,