Got a paper to write, a stack of papers to grade, or class to plan? Scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, and random sites? Procrastination at its best. Nearly every article on time management includes a warning to avoid procrastination. Sure, waiting until the last minute to start a task is a bad idea, but postponing tasks is not always procrastination. But is it really all that bad? Sure procrastination can stall your progress, but sometimes what looks like procrastination is really a productive pause.
An Active Pause
Intentionally delaying work on a task while keeping it in mind is sometimes referred to active procrastination, intentional delay, or a mindful, productive pause. Whatever you call it, pausing can lead to productivity. When faced with a problem, decision, or a paper assignment, we sometimes act too quickly, impulsively, and make mistakes. An intentional delay is incubation time, an opportunity to be mindful of the task and consider approaches. For example, I’m working on a presentation on a topic that is a bit of a stretch from my other work. So far I’ve taken some notes but I’ve delayed work on the talk. I’ve been thinking about it, reflecting on approaches while I go about other tasks. I’ve considered the topic for a while and feel like I have a handle on it and know what I’d like to do. I’m ready. I consider this a mindful, productive, delay – not procrastination.
Productive pause – is that simple word play? Maybe, but keeping a task in mind while fooling around on other activities is sometimes helpful. It’s incubation time, a chance to reflect on the paper, talk, or whatever, to be mindful. I don’t think we’re usually aware of this. We often procrastinate on stuff that we’re not quite sure how to begin. My writing flows – once I finally begin. I think this pause is helpful if it doesn’t last too long.
Intentionally pausing, waiting to begin, can be useful.
Many students jump straight to work when given an assignment. We usually praise this, but it’s possible to act too quickly. For example, a student may learn of an unexpected/forgotten exam. Panicked, he or she might immediately begin making flash cards. Intentionally pausing, even for a few hours, can prevent impulsive and potentially wasteful activity. If the student pauses to think about the content of the exam he or she might realize that flash cards aren’t the way to go (as is often the case). During a reflective pause a student might consider the semester as a whole and the items that compose a final course grade, feel less panicked about the new assignment and conclude that work for other classes is more important. Often what seems important changes over time, sometimes even over the course of a day. Waiting is not always such a bad idea.
But be careful.
I'm a big fan of pausing before beginning a project and taking the time to let ideas ferment. It gives me a moment to breathe and think. Of course, there’s a dangerous flip side. Sometimes we pause in ways that feel productive because we are getting things done. The problem is that we may be getting the wrong things done. Ever get obsessed with your to-do list? I find that playing with my to-do list – trying out new apps, reorganizing, and such, can eat up a ton of time. I’m drawn to fiddling with my list when I’m overwhelmed and stressed – those times when I really need to act rather than pause. How do you know if your pause is productive or simply procrastination? I don’t really have the answer other than to be mindful. Periodically stop and quiz yourself: What are you getting out of the pause?
Sometimes procrastination is a sign. Putting off something might mean that it isn't right for you. If you find yourself having extreme difficulty working on a task, consider why. Are you truly invested in it? How can you use this knowledge in the future?