Tips for Trainees by Jonathan Chung: Productive procrastination
I had a friend in college who was the king of procrastination. He had a calendar on his wall and would note when his papers or projects were due. He would then systematically wait until the very last minute and pull “all nighters” to get his assignments finished. In between, he would fill his time watching movies, going to the gym, and hanging out. He always seemed stressed and barely graduated.
I contrast this friend with someone else I knew from college. She was the queen of procrastination. She was always putting off studying or completing papers in exchange for other pursuits, similar to my other college friend. She too pulled her share of “all nighters.” However, eventually, she got into her first choice medical school and (last I heard) is in a wonderful private practice in the Midwest. So, why was she successful while my college friend was not? It was what she was doing while she was procrastinating. Rather than waste her time doing things that would not help her achieve her life goals, she procrastinated from the task at hand by participating (and often leading) in activities that would further her ultimate goal of getting into medical school. She organized a soup kitchen, multiple health fairs, pediatric health outreach programs, and a community clean up event. Rather than study for her course work, she was reviewing for her MCAT examination and performing research. She was practicing one of the most power lifehacks there is—productive procrastination.
Robert Benchley (a well known Algonquin Round Table member) said it best: “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” I don’t know why we are wired to procrastinate. However, I do know that there is good procrastination and bad procrastination. That is, one can use his/her own procrastinating tendency to his/her own advantage. One of my mentors from residency has almost 200 publications on his CV. I asked him once how he did it, thinking it must have taken an enormous amount of self-control to achieve such a feat. He replied that his system of having multiple active projects allowed him to be more productive over time. He would have 1-2 big, long-term projects he would work on methodically as scheduling allowed given that some of the roadblocks to completion of these projects were not in his control. When he grew frustrated or stymied while working on a long-term project, he would switch his focus to one of 3-4 smaller projects he was also working on. Each of these could usually be completed in a few days at most. By using his own form of productive procrastination, he was able to efficiently complete multiple varied projects ranging from small case reports to ground-breaking research in a relatively small amount of time.
Procrastination is simply human nature, but it can be used for good. I encourage you to give it a try. I think you will be quite pleased with the end results.