Productive Procrastination

Victor Hugo had just five months to write his novel “Notre-Dame de Paris,” or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” as it is known in English. But the already accomplished French author was completely blocked. An entire year past the deadline he had agreed upon with the publisher, Hugo hadn’t written a single sentence of the book.

Too many other things were competing for his time.

For one, Hugo was distracted by upheaval in France. In 1830, Paris was besieged, gripped by political upheaval, and in the midst of a second revolution.

For another, Hugo and his wife were precipitously evicted from their living quarters because the landlady couldn’t bear all the noise generated by the comings and goings of their friends and colleagues.

Using any excuse to procrastinate with the task at hand, Hugo spent his time going out to the theater instead of staying indoors to write the book.

But when his infuriated bookseller told Hugo that he was in breach of contract and had to deliver the entire manuscript by December 1 or else pay a fine of 1,000 francs a week for every week’s delay, Hugo knew he had to do something drastic to get himself on task.

According to his wife’s published memoirs, Hugo realized he “must be punctual to the hour.”

To that end, he bought himself a bottle of ink and a gray woolen shawl which he could drape himself in. Then he locked away his regular clothing so he would have no temptation to leave the house. Finally, he began to write.

From that day forward, his wife explained, Hugo left his desk only to eat and sleep. His only breaks were an hour of conversation with his friends in the afternoons. In fact, during the entire time he was writing what would be subsequently considered one of the greatest novels of European literature, Hugo left his new apartment only once. On December 20 (he did get granted an extension to February), he tried to attend the trial of King Charles X. Eh voilà. His scheme to beat the procrastination beast worked. He wrote the last line of “Notre-Dame de Paris” on January 14, using the last drop in his bottle of ink.

Pundits such as healthy habit guru James Clear, author of “Atomic Habits,” have made liberal use of Victor Hugo’s story to offer readers techniques to conquer their blocks and overcome procrastination. But what if there’s another way to understand what Hugo went through? What if that time he spent not writing was necessary, an essential part of the process that led him to writing such an important and brilliant book?

The Procrastination Problem

Lollygagging, dilly-dallying, dithering—whatever you call it, most of us do it. Even the most productive writers and artists, and the most successful CEOs, have times in their lives or careers when, like Hugo, they become blocked.

Procrastination is such a widespread “problem” that countless books and articles have been written about how to beat it. You’ve heard of some of them. Perhaps you’ve even read them: Brian Tracy’s 2017 bestseller, “Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time,” Piers Steel’s 2012 more scholarly “The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done,” and Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen’s 1983 perennial classic, “Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It Now.”

These are all fantastic and helpful reads. And they all make several arguments against procrastination.

You know these arguments already, because you’ve likely said them to yourself over and over again: Procrastination is the opposite of productivity; what you resist persists; when you’re blocked from doing the things you want and love to do, you’re not living your best life; time-wasting activities such as video games and social media take you away from the things that really matter; the list goes on.

Jeannie Lopez is a clinical psychologist with a specialty in neuropsychology (as well as in functional nutrition) based in the East Bay, California, told me that there are many psychological dynamics at play when people procrastinate. Sometimes, it’s perfectionism and a fear of failure that keep people from getting what they know they have to do done, other times it’s because of brain challenges, including executive functioning disorders. Difficulties with problem-solving, goal-setting, and staying on task are common in children and adults with ADHD and autism, Lopez said.

She also told me it’s common to have procrastinators and non-procrastinators in the same family. Indeed, one of America’s lead procrastination researchers, Dr. Joseph Ferrari, a professor at DePaul University in Chicago, insists that there is little to no genetic component to procrastinating.

“You are not born a procrastinator,” Ferrari insists in a recent article in Psychology Today. “You are not the product of ‘bad genes’ from your parents. You learn procrastination as a way of life …”

Lopez agrees.

“I’m a super-organized planner. My daughter is not. She’s 18 and she procrastinates all the time. My daughter’s attitude is, ‘Why do it now, when you can do it later?’” Lopez said. “My style is, ‘Let’s do it now, so we can do something else later!’”

Positive Procrastination

As much as she sometimes becomes frustrated with the clash between her way of doing things and her daughter’s, however, Lopez says there are unseen and unsung benefits to procrastinating.

“Let’s look at the positive side,” Lopez says. “Let’s make sure we look at the pros and cons of procrastination as a concept. What does it do that hinders us and what does it do that helps us and propels us forward?”

Lopez says that her daughter, who thrives off the adrenaline rush that comes from putting something off until she’s nearly out of time, is able to complete tasks at a high level of excellence just before they’re due.

“For the adrenaline junkies like her, it gets them going. This is their fuel. They live for these moments. Bring it on. Here’s the challenge. Let’s get going.”

But if you’re not someone who thrives on last-minute adrenaline, even as you are beating yourself up for “wasting time” and letting your negative self-talk take over, what’s actually happening may be quite different. Procrastination is not always “bad” or “wrong” or “time-wasting.” In fact, I would argue, your lollygagging may sometimes—perhaps even often—serve a positive purpose.

Enter a concept that I call productive procrastination.

When the impetus to put something off that you feel you need to be doing leads you to do something else that is actually productive and necessary for your health and well-being, procrastination becomes part of a positive and productive process.

Let me give you some examples. Recently, instead of finishing a magazine article due by the end of the day, I noticed it was sunny outside. It felt like the perfect moment to turn over the soil in my compost. So I jumped up from my desk and went to work in the garden (a luxury, I realize, that comes from working from a home office). I started to berate myself for not writing, knowing that my close-of-business deadline was looming. But I was doing a task—aerating the compost—that was productive in itself (and good for the worms). I also was allowing my skin to soak up sunlight, which has myriad health benefits, as well as getting some fresh air and exercise.

But in addition to all of that, although I wasn’t actively thinking about the article I needed to finish, my subconscious must have been at work. Once I was done turning over and watering the compost and I returned to my desk, how to solve a problem with the article’s organization became instantly clear.

Full disclosure: I strive to be an on-time person and the article was late by several hours. I was mad at myself for taking such a long break. But the truth is that what felt like a self-sabotaging delay was actually helping me get the job done. My editors didn’t mind the delay. The procrastination was productive.

My real mistake was my self-directed anger.

Lopez believes there are several upsides to procrastinating.

“Our society puts pressures on us, emphasizing speed and getting things done quickly,” Lopez said. “But sometimes you just need to sit with things and have them percolate.”

Arable Land Lying Fallow

Farmers who practice regenerative techniques let their land lie fallow during one or two growing cycles. This technique has been used for centuries in Asia, Africa, and the Mediterranean. An inexperienced eye sees a weed-filled empty field and a profiteer denigrates fallowing because the unplanted soil isn’t turning a profit. But the wise man knows that, as quiet as the field might look, a process of regeneration and rebirth is happening inside the soil. The rest period is giving the land a chance to replenish itself.

I believe that’s what Victor Hugo was doing all those years ago. While actively not writing “Notre-Dame de Paris,” Hugo completed at least one book of poems, a play, and a novella. “Notre-Dame de Paris” is considered one of the most important novels of 19th-century European literature. Perhaps, we have Hugo’s productive procrastination to thank, in part, for its excellence.


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