Gail Sibley, "In Unison," Dog Walker series, Unison Colour pastels on UART 400, 7 x 7 in

The Art of Procrastination…Can Procrastination Be a Good Thing?

I’m an expert procrastinator. I freely and utterly admit it. I have procrastination down to an art! And yet, I’m often congratulated on how much I get done. A paradox yes?

What is procrastination? It’s simply the act or habit of delaying or putting off something. There’s nothing negative per se in this meaning and yet, procrastination has such a bad reputation. 

Procrastinators are considered lazy and unproductive, irresponsible and idle, indecisive and unfocused. We’re known as slugs and slackers. UGH. Such heavy baggage. 

If we procrastinate, we often feel guilty or even ashamed of our behaviour. And Society certainly helps us along with those feelings. I’ve felt guilty for procrastinating. I’ve felt embarrassed. Procrastinating was always something I felt I needed to “fix.” Yet, the weird thing is that much of my procrastination ended up leading to good things. Let me share a couple of examples.

Accidentally Good Procrastination in Action

I needed to replace my wobbly A-frame easel for a solid H-frame. Yet, I kept putting it off, putting it off, never getting to it. And then, my procrastination paid off, my local store was clearing inventory and I got the easel I was considering for 50% off. Not bad! (Note though that I had already spent some time deciding what easel I wanted.)

I needed to create work for a show. And I was dawdling, not getting to the main part of the work. Then eek, here comes the deadline! And in an explosion of energy, I created pieces that I felt were powerful and new! (Note though that I had chosen what subjects I was going to paint and that I’d made sketches and doodled ideas. You’ll see below why this is important.)

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to see that deliberate procrastination works in a positive way. It gives opportunity for your brain to mull over things, to help you figure things out.

It was time to write this blog….here comes the deadline! I finally got to it yesterday. But the flow and clarity about what I wanted to say just weren’t there. It sounded okay but wasn’t organized well. And so I decided to delay finishing it. As I woke this morning, I could see what I needed to do, how I needed to rearrange and completely rewrite parts of it. Even though I was on a tight deadline, I knew from past experience that this delay would lead to something better than if I’d just pushed through to the end last night. 

Discovering Evidence of the Good Side of Procrastination!

In preparation for this post, I did a bit of research (a lovely form of procrastination!) to see if there was any evidence to show that procrastination could be a good thing. ] I discovered A LOT of articles on how to stop being a procrastinator. Whoa! Happily, I also found a few items that went against the grain and declared the positive side of procrastination.

For instance, there’s a book written by an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy from Stanford University (oh yes!) entitled: The Art of Procrastination – A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging, and Postponing (or getting things done by putting them off). (OMG, don’t you loooove that title?!) The blurb tells us that the author John Perry “celebrates this nearly universal character flaw by pointing out how often procrastinators are, paradoxically, doers.” Ah hah! Apparently, his book is based on his essay on ‘Structured Procrastination‘ (for which he won the Ig Nobel Prize for Literature in 2011).

Another great example I found is Andrea Jackson’s TedTalk called “Procrastination is the Key to Problem Solving.” She explains that procrastinating allows our brains to pull in random thoughts, ideas, things we hear, things we read, and tries to see how and if they fit into a “supersonic jigsaw puzzle”. It’s so good and explains a lot about what’s going on and why I’ve had success with procrastination albeit in an accidental way. (Hey me and Leonardo are buds!) 

Key Takeaways From This Talk

  1. Apparently, the Egyptians had two meanings for procrastination. The first was the one we know – “destructive procrastination.” The second is “wisely waiting for the right time.” Oh I like that one!
  2. There are two types of productive procrastinators – the accidental (Leonardo da Vinci) and the deliberate (Thomas Edison). We want to try and be the deliberate kind.
  3. We can activate our minds to solve problems by doing three procrastinating things. The third of these – deadlines – I’ve found to be super important! (Watch the video to find out what the other two are!)

So you see, we now have Productive Procrastination, Structured Procrastination, Deliberate Procrastination, Intentional Procrastination. All positive slants on procrastination!

And how is this relevant to you in your art-making life? 

It seems there’s such a push in today’s world to be productive, to be efficient, to do more. And sometimes, the act of creating takes time. And thought. And mulling over. Sometimes the answers to what we should do next in a painting aren’t obvious. Instead of standing in front of the easel gnashing our teeth and trying to will the solution to appear, maybe this is the time to take a break, to delay putting down that next stroke. 

Perhaps the best thing to do is go for a coffee, or take a walk, or even check social media (gasp!). This break allows our brains, in the background, to chew over what needs to be done next. Yet this postponement can make us feel guilty about not pushing through with the work, even though this change can help us make new connections and inspire solutions in our art. 

Procrastination coffee break!
Procrastination coffee break!! Gail Sibley, “Cappuccino Remains,” Unison Colour pastels on UART 280, 7 1/2 x 6 in. Available.

Delay can help us loosen creative blocks by giving us the space and time to play with different ideas, ideas that aren’t necessarily related to art. This hiatus can allow us to replenish our art-well, to allow ideas to percolate and bubble to the surface. And at some point, we often get a surge of energy and enthusiasm to paint, a wave that cannot be denied, that requires release onto paper or canvas or clay. And we practically run into our studios to make it happen!

I hope you can relate to this delicious moment!

Sometimes slowing down really does give us time to come up with new ideas. Give yourself permission to cogitate, to circle, to avoid. Because in time, your art will call. The need to create will overcome your avoidance. Your procrastination will birth your deep desire to paint.

Procrastination and Perfectionism

Before I wrap up, I want to mention the relationship between Procrastination and Perfectionism. You may have heard this phrase: Perfection leads to Procrastination leads to Paralysis. (I actually have it written on above my door as a reminder!) It is sooooo true! If you fantasize about creating the perfect piece of art, you may well put off starting it. Forever. Hmmm…not great if you want to express yourself visually in art.

The phrase, Scribbled in charcoal above my door!
Scribbled in charcoal above my door!

If you have a deadline, however, procrastinating may actually get you over the hump of perfectionism. Rather than some perfect ideal, once you get the fire under you to start, you’ll probably end up with something imperfect. And you know what? Most of the time, this is oh such a good thing. Your imperfect piece may bring your expression, your vision, your way of working, more clearly to light. Think about some of your past favourite paintings with this in mind….

So tell me, are you a procrastinator? And if you are, have you felt guilty about delaying an action? Does this article help? Can you begin to see the value of procrastination? 

If you aren’t a procrastinator then please, do share your way of being and what your days look like. I’d love to know!

Until next time (when no doubt I will have done some serious procrastinating!),

~ Gail

PS. And now for a bit of humour on this procrastination thing….

It’s funny right? But that’s because it’s so damn true! I TOTALLY relate! What about you?It’s about writing but it could just as well apply to getting into the studio and painting.

PPS. To be clear, I’m not advocating for destructive procrastination….😜

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40 thoughts on “The Art of Procrastination…Can Procrastination Be a Good Thing?”

  1. You, dear Gail, are an outstanding artist, writer and teacher. I always look forward to your blog. This blog covers the important topic of procrastination and you handled it beautifully. I’ve always felt the time I take thinking about what I want to do is an integral part of getting it done. It’s important research, kind of like gymnastic twirls of the brain before we can make a solid and well-balanced landing. In fact, we’re probably in one phase or another…when we’re not actually accomplishing something we’re twirling towards it. And round and round it goes…how wonderfullly positive this outlook makes me , and I hope you, feel!

    1. And you Shelley know how to make a gal feel much appreciated!! Thank you!
      And thank you too for your addition to this idea of deliberate procrastination. How wonderful to think of ourselves oscillating between twirling and accomplishing in the cycle of creativity – beautifully put!

  2. Tomato/tomahto…procrastination/processing. I need time to ponder things, mull and muddle. It really helps to be on a Retirement timeline; easy to ignore the Monday-Friday time clock. I will read the Stanford author!

    1. Hah hah! You say tomato, I say tomahto 🎶 (Yes…a wee detour and procrastinating…to track down the song.) I’m glad you can ignore the Monday to Friday clock. How long did it take you to break the habit??
      I can’t wait to read John Perry’s book too.

  3. To others I may be a procrastinator but to me I am giving myself the time to mull things over and to find the right time. Having said that, there have been times when I’ve thought “you should have done this sooner!” So, a bit of this and a bit of that… Love your blog!

    1. It’s good to know that in ourselves Angie, about needing the time to mull things over. And I hear you about the “shouldering” part. So the next thing we need to do is stop “shouldering” on ourselves! It was done when it was done right? Glad you enjoyed the blog!

  4. Gail, Right On! I almost always want to paint. When I put it off, choose to do other things instead, I think about painting, imagine myself stroking pastel onto paper. When I get around to it again, I’ve noticed I paint better from that point forward.

  5. Hello Gail,
    Very good article and much à propos for a procrastinator like me. Maybe, we procrastinate sometimes because we have self confidence, deep inside. You made me discover the Ig nobel. How interesting ! Both paintings in your article are beautifully colorful, inspiring and soothing. Have a great day, Gail.

    1. Hey Maïmouna, happy to hear from you and that you enjoyed the article.
      It’s interesting what you say about why we procrastinate and wonder if that’s what you meant to say…as I would maybe say it’s because we lack self-confidence inside. Please let me know which is correct.
      Isn’t the Ig Nobel fabulous? A discovery for me too! And uh oh, I can see I have another place to go to procrastinate doing my art… 🤣
      Thank you for the compliment on my artwork – they seemed to fit the theme of deliberate procrastination well.

  6. Gail, THANK YOU for this article! I have been criticized and lamblasted for procrastination all my life. But I learned in high school that that is how I work best. In my junior year of high school, we had to write a short paper every two weeks on a topic of our teacher’s choice. I literally would mull iver and let stew the topic in my mind for 13 days. On the morning my paper was due, I got up at 3 am and wrote down my thoughts on the subject, no particular order, and then arranged them and revised when necessary. At lunch, I copied it neatly (this was the 60s) and turned it in at class in the afternoon. I always got A’s. The teacher would say she always knew who waited till the last minute to do their paper. I just smiled.

    You have reminded me what I’ve known but have forgotten lately when taking on commissions. Thank you, thank you for reminding me of something that I’ve seen work over and over!

    I will get the book!

    1. Katie, I did a jig (or at least a jiggle in my seat) with a big grin as I read your comment. I soooo relate to your experience in high school! It’s amazing how we can all work differently yet society basically says there’s only one good way of working. That’s changed for sure over the years but I still think we have a ways to go.

      Love that this helped remind you of your way of working as you relate to your commission work.

      I just opened the book – it’s a hoot! Very tongue-in-cheek but so so true! (Wait til you see the example of the to-do list 🤣)

  7. Very appropriate for me today. Today is definitely a procrastination day. I seem to allow myself a procrastination day from time to time; like after I finish a project, and before I get ready to do the next one. Or, when I’ve decided to do something new and/or difficult. Invariably, I always get to the place where I’m once again ready to jump in. Also, I’ve observed that as I’ve gotten older, the easier on myself I’ve become. I put a lot less pressure on myself than I used to. Being retired is a big reason for that, I guess. But I also think that my TM meditation practice influences my “go with the flow” attitude, which I find increases as time goes along. This was an interesting subject to ponder. Thanks Gail!!

    1. Ohhh such good examples Ruth!
      Yes…a Procrastination Day is always a good thing. It’s when we allow ourselves to check out for a bit, without guilt! That’s always the hardest part! But I think that with age, we begin to see patterns and rhythms in the way we do and be and think, and if we can tune in to those, everything works better and we can say, Yup, today is my day off…or…my Procrastination Day because tomorrow really is another day and all sorts of wonderful things may happen because of this break.

  8. Great article and TED talk. I like to think of mulling as part of my preparatory process. It helps me to consider various ideas. Sometimes a bit of yard work keeps my hands busy leaving my mind free to picture the result I’m after – then pastels and surface, here we go!. Thanks!

    1. Oh yes Lori!! Love that you’ve brought up gardening as a way to let our minds do their thing as we do some physical work and decision-making around what to prune, minding what we weed, things to plant and where. Yeah! And yes, mulling is such an important part of the creative process. It’s wonderful when we can give ourselves the time to do this without guilt or anxiety about time passing!

  9. Really good blog post Gail. The driven multi-tasking way of Western culture vs. island time of some others befuddles me as to how the USA is (for how long) the most powerful nation. Is it the happiest? I love your PPP statement. My on pause studio has “Risking and dreaming are primary acts of creativity” hanging. So I’d equate procrastination with dreaming which I excell at. The risk part is my albatross. So do others procrastinate on risk taking? I would love your take on risking it Gail.

    1. Thanks Brenda!! I LOVE what’s on your studio wall! Gonna put it in mine too 😁

      RISK is definitely going to be a topic for the next ArtCamp in the IGNITE! art-making membership!! In the meantime, I’ll say this..it’s easy for us to get comfortable in what we’re doing. When we finally get to a place where things seem to be working well, it’s tempting to stay there. I mean, it feels so good! But this is the moment to start thinking about what we can do to shake things up a bit. Taking risks is how we grow…in all areas of our lives not just in our art journey.

  10. Sometimes I do get into some sort of analysis paralysis with overthinking it…then I remind myself the worst thing that happens is I waste a bit of paper…and get going.

    1. Oh Nancy…I know all about analysis paralysis lol!! Love your reminder about what the possible negative is (waste of paper) and then just, argh, get going!!

  11. I can totally relate to your procrastination process! While I seem to be procrastinating, I am actually planning and plotting my next painting. And when I get stuck, I will put a painting aside, sometimes for days, before going back to complete. I don’t have deadlines to meet, but when I get inspiration I must paint now!
    I love your blogs. Even though I work with watercolors, your blogs on composition, color and many other subjects are so informative.

    1. I’m so glad you can relate Marcia. And thanks for sharing your own way of procrastinating – planning and plotting – and then boom, ready to paint!

      I’m delighted to hear how useful my blog posts are to you although my medium of illustration is usually pastels. It’s my intention for these posts to go across media so thank you for letting me know!

  12. Thanks for defining procrastination for me, Gail! It’s something far from the core of my being. I love getting things done! I get worried and crabby if I don’t hop to it! Maybe it has to do with my birth order (eldest child)??

    1. Hah hah!! Elaine, I’m glad you piped up. You are definitely a non- procrastinator!! I’m not sure birth order has much to do with it though….🙄

    1. That’s fantastic Felipe! It’s wonderful when an article can help sort out our own chaotic or, as you say, muddled, thoughts. Yay! (And thanks 🙃)

  13. Interesting subject…. My dear friend says that I’m a ‘get-‘er-done’ girl. I’m a list maker, and as an Olympic level list maker, I do get a lot accomplished. So often, however, what I get done is not what I really want to do, it’s what I must do to meet some self-imposed deadline. My get-‘er-done days start with exercise, then chores, then 2 hrs of art, then gardening. And the list goes on (obla dee obla dah).

    Within this organized day of mine, I often stall out when it gets creative – 2 hrs of art. I clean my pastels, organize my bins (again), look at photos on the computer for inspiration, work on building my easel, doodle some thumbnails (la la la la life goes on). But now I know that I’m not stalled out – I’m procrastinating like a pro. Marinating, as it were, like a great session of yin yoga. Ah, what a relief! I’m a good girl after all.

    You’ll be happy to hear that I worked on ‘Sepia Mike’ today. Did a couple of thumbnails – letting them marinate as I write this. Tomorrow, (if I have enough time) I’ll draw his hands to explore how I want them to be in the painting. And, I will know all the while that I am making great use of my time, and creatively procrastinating.

    1. Hah hah thank you so much for this humorous look at your life Liz and how it all relates to the grand art of procrastination ….the good side!

      And yes, I’m happy to know you’ve got to work on this very special piece of yours. Take your time….😁

  14. Yes Gail, I did get your procrastination blog, but I have put off reading it until now ;O))) I totally agree with everything you write and with the videos. But I have often wondered procrastination might include a subtle element of fear of some sort?
    Thanks for all your devoted work.
    Nancy Malard

    1. Hah hah…good procrastinator Nancy!
      And for sure, procrastination often involves some sort of fear. We circle, putting off what needs to be done or what we want to do, and then decide that the need/desire outweighs the fear (fear of messing up, fear of wasting materials, fear of embarrassment, fear of rejection, fear that we’ll find we e a fraud, that we’ve been fooling ourselves, and on the list goes!) and we we get doing! Yes. Eventually we get there…in our own time. I also feel like procrastinating is a form of sorting the wheat from the chaff….even if it takes us time to get to the top priority!

  15. I am a retired engineer living my dream of pastel painting. I have often been labeled a ruminator and procrastinator. But this has always served me well in my engineering life. I took the time to visualize what I wanted to do, how to do it and imagined the outcome. Now, as an artist I find this to be invaluable. It’s been said that some artists visualize the outcome of paintings before they start. I find this very exciting and motivating to take the time to do this. After years of being labeled a procrastinator, I enjoyed reading your article which validated my own feelings. Thank you very much.

    1. Ohhhh Joe, love that you used this idea in your engineering life and have now brought it into your painting life. And ohhhhh I love that word – “ruminator”. YES! It sounds like a positive label to me. Glad to hear you appreciated this article!

  16. Hi Gail love this post! I am definitely a procrastinator 😬 You are an amazing artist and writer, love your sense of humor. You should definitely write a book.

    1. Hey Alicia, thanks so much for your oh so positive comment!!
      A book eh? Thanks for that vote of confidence 😊 What would you want to see in it?

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Gail Sibley

Artist. Blogger. Teacher.

My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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