Active Procrastination: Creating Productivity Out of Distraction

What’s that you say? Oxymoron? We think not.  Liam O’Rourke

We’ll get to the mittens, don’t you worry.

I’m going to sit down now and make myself do this. I’m going to write this report. I’m going to sit down now. Yes. I have to do this.

Ooh, I wonder if those pictures on the wall would look better in a different configuration

And so the nightmare of procrastination begins. People who suffer from the procrastination bug can tell you about how well organized their refrigerator is when they are avoiding work, or how their books have all been alphabetized, or how they finally put all those pennies into 50 cent rolls.

I’ve been there: it’s awful. I look up with feverish eyes at the time only to realize that I have just spent two hours completing the stupidest task ever in order to avoid doing whatever it was I should have been doing.

Now, I wish I could tell you this is the story of how I learned never to procrastinate and got everything I ever wanted and more. But it’s not. Because I haven’t figured out how to stop procrastinating, I haven’t figured out how not to need that relief from work, the feeling of stopping and breathing.  I have, however, figured out how not to have the act of procrastination drown me in a sea of self-loathing and lost time.

About four years ago I slowly worked myself into a practice I call active procrastination: basically a way to stop merely doing anything to avoid work instead doing something—something specific. One of the greatest traps a procrastinator like me falls into is that of just looking around for anything in that moment to distract from the task at hand. This leads to ridiculous wastes of time: television, Facebook (love it but it’s essentially a black hole for procrastinators), folding towels a little more neatly, looking through a three month old US Weekly for the third time (Marion Cotillard really did wear it better, didn’t she?).

Those things always left me feeling deeply dissatisfied—and I would still have my work looming over me. It occurred to me that, even if I still had a tendency to procrastinate, I should at least do it mindfully: if I was going to say “no” to one thing I had to say “yes” to something else. So I started to keep a list of things I was curious about, things I had always wanted to know or learn, things that would leave me feeling satisfied with the way I had “wasted” my time. Then, when I would catch myself on the edge of procrastination (I just can’t bear the thought of doing X right now), I would turn not to the remote or the nearest object to me but to my list.

Suddenly instead of being someone who wished he knew how to do certain things, I found myself being someone who knew how to do those things. In between two chores one day, I learned how to tie a bowtie. Another week I knew I was going to make my first roast chicken, so I jotted down on my list: learn how to carve a roast chicken properly. A day later, when I just couldn’t bear to write any more, I watched an excellent video on how to do that. A cute guy at a party had told me about a band he liked, so I scribbled it onto my list. When I needed a twenty-minute break from work, I listened to a few of the songs. Cute and excellent taste in music. Good to know.

I found that not only was I less demoralized by my downtime, but this practice started to transform moments when I had time to kill. In fact, I was no longer killing time but filling it. Turns out that there are ten minutes in the day for doing squats. Those forty minutes spent at the airport before boarding were no longer about overpriced snacks and staring out the window; they became time in which I worked on my knitting.


Baby sweater.

Oh yes. Knitting. That’s the part of this story that I left out. For a long time I had wanted to knit, but I had never thought I could learn. So I decided that active procrastination didn’t just have to involve small bite-size activities but could allow for the growing practice of something new and complex. I bought some knitting needles and yarn and said to myself: every time you feel like procrastinating or don’t have something pressing, you will learn how to knit. Enter two weeks of tangled yarn, cursing, yelling at Youtube videos, and strangers edging away from me on the subway.

But slowly I figured it out. Every time I learned a little more, became a little more proficient. I could cast on, I could do the knit stitch without making mistakes; soon I had a little garter stitch scarf. That led to more: purl stitches, fixing my mistakes, making cables, learning how to make shaped garments. Now, three years later, I have a catalog of objects that I have made-scarves, cowls, hats, mittens, baby blankets, a sweater—all thanks to procrastination.

So start making a list of all those things—little and big—that you’ve always been curious about or wished you could do, and then, when you feel that tug from the claws of procrastination, just turn to your list. It may not be One-Eyed Willy’s treasure, but a marble bag filled with jewels is all you need to save the Goon Docks anyway.


Wrap yourself up. That’s productivity keepin’ you warm.

-Liam O’Rourke


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