Productive Procrastination

Sometimes I astonish myself. You wouldn’t believe how neat and orderly my pantry is. How clean and well-stocked. All the canned fruit is on one end of a shelf, all the canned beans and olives on the other. Cereal boxes are lined up with spares behind. The canisters holding flour and sugar are full, and free of dust and fingerprints. The floor gleams, with nary a crumb or broken chip in sight.

It’s all the more impressive because 1) I have a lot of editing to do today, and 2) we have around 30 people coming for a BBQ tomorrow night. The sensible, responsible thing to do would have been either 1) to sit down at my computer and start rearranging words and rewording sentences, or 2) to clean the bathroom, then run the vacuum around the living room.

Note that, while I love my job, I just wasn’t in the mood to spend time editing today. I spent yesterday editing, and the day before, and the day before that. And I never enjoy cleaning bathrooms or vacuuming. So what’s a person to do?


I suppose I should feel guilty. We’re not supposed to procrastinate. Ah, but this wasn’t your average, run of the mill procrastination. I know better than to do that. No, this was Productive Procrastination.

I wasn’t wasting time, I was getting something done. The pantry did need a bit of attention, after all.

Productive procrastination is nothing new for me. My college dorm room was always cleanest the week before finals, when I had plenty of studying to do. I typically plan out next year’s veggie garden right when I could be Christmas shopping for the relatives who have everything. And I’d much rather catch up on the news than do the breakfast dishes.

Those are all good things to do. Rooms need cleaning, gardens need planning, and I do want to keep up with current events. The catch is that I needed to pass my finals, I love my relatives, and no house elf is going to magically appear to do the dishes.

Since I’ve been swapping one job for another for at least 40 years, I figure that I’m unlikely to stop any time soon. Rather, I’m learning how to make this habit work for me. It involves a bit of chore sleight of hand, or perhaps self-deceit. There are two parts to the process. First, I have to determine what really needs to be done now. Then, I have to think of something worse to avoid. Let me demonstrate.

As I mentioned earlier, I do not enjoy cleaning bathrooms. Yet, it has to be done, especially when a horde of guests is about to arrive. But there are chores even worse than scrubbing toilets—accounting, for example. I have a stack of receipts in the basket on my desk that all need to be matched with credit card charges I downloaded into Quicken, then assigned budget categories. The worst are those from stores that sell everything—did we buy food or greeting cards, potting mix or detergent? So I pull out the basket of charge slips, click open Quicken on my computer, and then productively procrastinate by slinking off to go wipe down a sink.

Sneaky, right? Good thing I’m so easily fooled.

There’s only one problem. The accounting needs attention too. I suppose there are some things worse than accounting; setting a broken bone without anesthesia comes to mind. (Thankfully, I’ve never had to compare the two). While my little subterfuge may work on housework and the more tedious parts of my job, eventually you have to deal with reality. Apparently, the only way I’m going to get the accounting done is to exercise some self-control.

Maybe a reward would be sufficiently motivating. Chocolate?

† My good friend Linda came up with this perfect term.


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