When Procrastination is Productive – Scott H Young

I recently had an email exchange with a reader who, in his words, claimed to struggle with a lack of commitment. 

He wanted to study machine learning, but he couldn’t get past the first few modules of the course he’s taking. After a few emails back and forth, however, I discovered the reason he “wasn’t able to commit” was simply that his full-time job and family responsibilities kept getting in the way.

I don’t think this reader’s problem was a lack of commitment. 

When genuinely more important things interfere with side projects, procrastinating on the side project is the correct thing to do! His problem isn’t a lack of commitment; rather, it’s a failure of logistics, difficulty organizing whatever leftover time was available to make some progress on his goal. 

There’s a myth in self-improvement circles that everyone ought to be able to achieve any goal. Any failure to do so is seen as a lack of willpower, motivation or “commitment.” Not only is this profoundly untrue, but the mindset it generates leads to an impasse that makes it impossible to make real progress.

Maintenance and Aspirations

The best way to achieve a goal is to expend overwhelming effort working on the task. Do 10x as much as you think you need to. For ambitious goals in which few people typically succeed, this may be the only thing that raises the probability of success.

But not all goals are like this. Many are like the reader’s desire to study machine learning: It’s not overwhelmingly difficult, but it is time-consuming and probably falls in the bottom ten of his overall life priorities. 

One solution to the problem is to accept the priority is low and give up any expectations for achieving it. Sometimes, this is wise. I have dozens of learning projects I don’t work on at all simply because they’d take too much time from things I consider more important. Procrastination on low-priority items is not a vice.

But my reader’s situation was a little different. The project he had in mind was his big aspirational goal—that was being preempted by all the mundane things he had to do to keep his life from falling apart.

In my course, Make it Happen!1, I discuss an important distinction between maintenance activities and aspirational goals:

  • Maintenance activities are things you need to do to keep your life functioning. Washing dishes, doing your job, spending time with friends and family, paying your taxes, etc. You need to wash dishes, but there’s no aim to be the world’s best dishwasher or achieve new levels of cutlery cleanliness.
  • Aspirational goals are those things you want to improve or achieve that transcend the status quo. Staying relatively in shape is a maintenance activity. Running a marathon is an aspirational goal.

Achieving goals is an optimization problem. Maintenance activities form the constraints on your life, and you try to optimize progress on the aspirational goals with what’s left.

Of course, this distinction isn’t rigid. Keeping a good relationship with my wife might be a “maintenance” activity by this definition, but I’m hardly an excellent husband if I only do the bare minimum. Similarly, you might set the goal of getting in shape (aspirational) but the mechanism for achieving it is a hard rule about jogging every day, which creates a fixed constraint on your time.

Still, distinguishing between them is useful since maintenance activities tend to be sustained by routines and habits, whereas aspirational goals, by their nature, require conscious planning, problem-solving and effort and thus tend to be more deliberate.

Making Progress on Low-Priority Projects

So what should this reader do to make progress on his aspirational studying goal (or at least stop feeling guilty about procrastinating on it)?

Taking a complete inventory of your maintenance activities is an essential first step. What things do you have to do to keep your life on track?2

Next, you need to prioritize among your outstanding aspirational goals. When you look at each goal in isolation, it’s easy to think you have time for each of them, and then chastise yourself for not pursuing them. But unless you’re actually listing them all out and deciding what matters most, that’s a recipe for guilt, not success.

Priorities don’t need to be unchanging. It’s fine to prioritize programming this month and then next month focus on getting in shape. The problem is that when you try to prioritize both concurrently, you will likely achieve neither, but you may beat yourself up about it.

Once you’ve done this exercise, you’ll have a much better picture of what you can reasonably accomplish. If you realize you only have thirty minutes a day after all your maintenance activities, you should scale your ambitions to that fact. Thirty minutes a day might be enough time to pick up a new hobby, but it’s probably not enough time to launch a start-up or self-study a degree in a typical timeframe. 

Being Okay with Procrastinating on Low-Priority Goals

Having a lot of maintenance activities is normal. It means there are things in your life that are valuable to you that you don’t want to lose. It’s perverse to argue that a person who can’t launch a start-up because they have a career and a family somehow exhibits a defect in commitment. 

Often, maintenance activities tend to grow as you become more successful. While there are some cases where success leads to shedding responsibilities, the more typical case is the opposite. Nobel-prize winners are lauded, but they also tend to have less time for original research as the acclaim comes with press attention, honorary appointments and countless requests for their time.

While a person willing to sacrifice many of the values sustained by their maintenance activities will have more capacity left for aspirational goals, that’s an issue of prioritization, not laziness. Thomas Edison was the most prolific inventor in history. He was also an inattentive husband and father. Choosing differently than he did isn’t a character flaw.

Productivity isn’t throwing out all your existing commitments in the fanatical pursuit of a big ambition. Instead, it’s choosing what matters and organizing your time and energy to reach it. Don’t let yourself feel guilty if those choices cause you to procrastinate on something that genuinely matters less.


  1. For a limited time, you can get Make it Happen! for no charge when you preorder my new book Get Better at Anything on or before May 6, 2024. Just follow the instructions at the bottom of the preorder page to get your preorder bonuses, including the full course, Make it Happen!
  2. This should only include things you actually do, not things you think you should do. If it’s not currently a habit, it’s an aspirational goal—not a maintenance activity.

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