I have always been a chronic procrastinator.
I submitted the application for my first writing internship — the one that would eventually lead to my first editing job — five minutes before the cutoff deadline. I never pay my rent early. I wait until I have a day’s worth of shampoo left to buy more.
I’m getting better, little by little, because it turns out that, as a professional, narrowly missing deadlines can actually sort of almost get you in big trouble. Or, at the very least, it’s five a.m., you’re running on three hours of sleep because you were up until one finishing it, and now you have to go to work cranky and unfocused and AAAHHHHH.
It took until I was hours away from finishing my graduate degree to realize two things: One, that procrastinating can be very, very bad — but two, that if you plan things out just right, it might actually benefit you in the long run.
Does that sound wacky? Of course it does. Welcome to my brain. Allow me to explain.
So there I was, basically in my 20th year of school — and thankfully, at least for the time being, the last. To be clear, I LOVED graduate school. I’m THAT kind of nerd. As ready as I was for my career as a traditional student to end, I knew I was going to miss the concrete excuse to learn.
There were no exams in my final course — only projects. It was one of those class structures where you turned a small piece of your project in every week or so, and then put everything together at the very end. There was no presentation to finish off. All we had to do was write up a 15-page proposal for a fake health initiative, which is, you know, the kind of thing you do when you’re training to become a health communications expert.
We were given our deadline the day the class started — let’s just say it was May 1, 2017. We were given plenty of time and space to complete this project throughout the three-month course. Theoretically, it was possible to turn the paper in as early as a week in advance, because we didn’t learn anything new the last week of the class. We were given that entire time to put together and submit the paper.
Guess what I didn’t do?
Not only did I neglect to work on the paper even for a second that entire week, but I also spent most of the class turning in loose rough drafts of each piece I figured I would polish up later. (Hint: DON’T EVER DO THAT, EVER EVER EVER.)
Scene: May 1, 2017, 7:00 PM. I’m texting a friend whose close family member is in the hospital and she needs comfort. I have everything I need to write this 15-page paper … but I’m also on central time, and our 11:59 PM deadline is on eastern time. So I basically have four hours — FOUR. HOURS. — to write this 15-page proposal, which needs to include citations, material from the textbook and lectures, charts, mock flyers …
7:02 PM. Full panic mode commencing in 3 … 2 … 1 …
Mind you, I have been a procrastinator for a very long time at this point. I know the exact cycle of this panic wave. I’m going to freak out for a few minutes, start wondering what would happen if I failed the class, look at the seemingly very long list of requirements for this paper, take a deep breath …
And then I’m going to write the entire thing in one sitting without stopping.
And that’s exactly what I did.
If I remember correctly, I did end up turning the paper in a few minutes past the deadline. But, as so often happens, I still got a decent grade both on the paper and in the class.
I’m not exceptionally gifted in the realm of academics. I failed general chemistry twice in college. Math literally breaks my brain. When I hear there’s going to be a test, I curl up into a ball and barely breathe.
But somehow, when it comes to writing, I work best under pressure. I completed the same amount of work in four hours as I probably would have in one or two weeks chipping away at that paper little by little.
What usually ends up happening anyway, when I try to break big projects into small pieces, is that I write myself straight into a flow state and end up finishing the entire thing in one sitting without trying to.
For me, in certain circumstances, procrastination actually saves me time and eliminates my greatest distractions. As I wrote that paper, I don’t think I checked Facebook or even took my eyes off my computer screen other than to check in with my friend.
Is what I call “extreme procrastination” healthy? No. Especially not all the time. Some stress is good, and if you work well under pressure on bigger projects, there’s probably nothing wrong with using this kind of stress to your advantage as long as you get the work done on time and it’s exceptional work.
But too much stress too often isn’t good. It’s one of the reasons so many people have heart disease. Some stress: Good. Lots of stress: Not good.
This is why I “plan” my procrastination. Is it really procrastination if you plan for it? Debatable. But for many of my writing deadlines, I don’t plan on working on something until the day it’s due. This just makes it easier for me to focus my attention on more pressing priorities, knowing I’m going to have just the right amount of pressure to help me focus on a deadline when I really need to.
I’m just one person and I’ve spent a lot of time creating a productivity system that works for me and my writing schedule. I’m not saying you should start procrastinating if you don’t, or that you shouldn’t try to get a better handle on your procrastination issues if you have them.
But for some people, procrastination is just the key to their productivity. They know they’re going to procrastinate, so they simply take that into account when managing their own projects. Maybe it’s no longer procrastinating when you plan for it, but either way, this method sometimes tricks the brain into thinking that much-needed pressure is still there even when it’s been part of the plan all along.
I’m more productive because I’ve accepted that I’m a procrastinator and this fact is not going to change. Maybe we need to spend less time trying to undo our bad habits and more time figuring out how to balance them out with better ones. E.g., I’m also not going to stop eating potato chips, but if I eat a piece of fresh fruit also, at least I’m making an effort to eat something healthy.
Are you as bad of a procrastinator as I am? Maybe you feel like it’s hurting you. Maybe it’s actually not hurting you at all — you just never realized its potential power.
Tell me about your relationship with procrastination. How does it affect your writing? Do you wish you had more control over it? How can I help?
Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a staff writer with The Cheat Sheet, a freelance editor and writer, and a 10-time NaNoWriMo winner. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.