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The Productivity Wars: Positive Procrastination

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There are several definitions of procrastination:

1) To defer action; to delay
2) To put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness
3) To postpone or delay needlessly
4) To voluntarily delay an intended course of action despite expecting to be worse off for the delay

The first of these definitions is "neutral," while the others bear negative connotations. And generally speaking, people think of procrastination as an undesirable trait. But can procrastination ever be positive?

There are certain circumstances when it is "acceptable" - even wise - to procrastinate! But we first need to think of this behavior in terms of the neutral definition of deferring or delaying action in the list above. We can then ascribe a positive attribute to it, depending on the situation.

One of the most appropriate times to positively procrastinate is when you are faced with a project or task that is of higher priority compared to the one you are currently doing or preparing to do. (Think of Steven Covey's four-quadrant matrix for importance and urgency.) For example, let's say that you have just settled down to file e-mail messages into appropriate folders on your computer and a valued client phones unexpectedly (you recognize the phone number on your caller ID). Though this is not your scheduled time for phone calls, it would be perfectly logical to postpone filing your e-mail to take the call because serving this client would be more important than the e-mail filing. If the call resulted in a task or project that represented a new source of revenue or a possible referral and that required immediate attention (important and urgent), it would be logical to continue postponing the e-mail filing.

Another occasion to positively procrastinate is when you know information is coming that may change the direction or the outcome of your project. There is little point in proceeding full steam ahead if the granting of a loan, the passage of a bill into law, or some other soon-to-be-announced circumstance could drastically affect the goal that you are seeking to achieve with your project. Even if you have great momentum going, it makes more sense to stop working on the project or to work only on its non-critical aspects until which time you receive the vital information that will determine your next steps.

A third occasion for positive procrastination is when you are working for someone who frequently changes his/her mind. Imagine expending time, energy, and other resources on a project only to have the client tell you that the concept for the project has changed or that there are now budget constraints that require you to do things differently. One might understand this happening once. But after two or three times, you'll be happy to postpone taking the next step on the project until you and the client can achieve absolute clarity on what needs to be done. If it happens more than three times, then I suggest that you reconsider whether you want to work with the client at all!

So yes, it is possible for procrastination to be positive. But in actuality, what we are describing when we talk about "positive procrastination" is "effective prioritization." I think we can all agree that effective prioritization is something we should strive for.

Share your "positive procrastination" story below!

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