Procrastination is Signal, not Noise.
Power through this everyday villain at your own risk.
“The signal-to-noise ratio is the ratio of the power of the signal (meaningful input) to the power of background noise (meaningless input).” - Lectures on Analog and Digital Signals, Tomsk University.
‘The signal is the truth. The noise is what distracts us from the truth.' Nate Silver
In popular culture, especially in education & career-oriented thought, procrastination is viewed as a barrier to be brute-forced, an obstacle that we must grit our teeth and get through. Essentially, it’s treated as noise - background interference that’s blocking us from our potential. We’re well aware of the many ways procrastination can interfere with our goals, how it preys on our love of laziness, craving for comfort, and our desire for distraction. There are two common approaches to procrastination: the celebrated way of powering through, or the less celebrated way of simply ignoring the procrastination with more procrastination. But is there a third way?
What if we viewed procrastination as a signal, a meaningful input full of information to be considered? Procrastination is not a singular thing, but takes shape as a combination of our feelings, emotions, and thoughts; essentially, it is a gestalt of our Being telling us something important. It’s up to us to listen. Here are some of its most common signals:
Procrastination is telling us we need to embark on a new path. Many of our outcomes - whether in our day-to-day living, our work, our projects - are not some manifestation of a deep intention, but an amalgamation of outside influences, societal pressures, or what was easy or made sense at the time. It’s no wonder, then, that we end up on paths (education, career, project, etc.) that drain us rather than fill us. These are the moments when procrastination is most likely to strike - when we find ourselves substituting our to-dos with other chores and when each productive moment feels like a struggle. These are signals to contemplate our values and goals, and whether our present situation is reflective of those. Inertia and momentum are powerful forces, and procrastination can be a signal that we need to fight back against them.
Procrastination is telling us we should remain flexible. Actions can be divided two ways - reversible and irreversible. As I fiddle with my words writing this, I can easily reorganize, delete, and add - there’s no reason for me to procrastinate my writing, because I can always change and update what it is. However many of our actions are irreversible, and have a rippling effect on the shape of our lives. What school and jobs we choose, what skills we focus on, even what house projects we undertake. Compounding this effect, is that the larger society and world around us is continually pressing us to take a stand, make a decision, purchase this and sign up for that, begin this routine and start that service. The ability to remain open to possibilities and conserve resources is natural and powerful; forcing an action ignores this important signal and sacrifices this openness, closing down future pathways and possibilities.
Procrastination is telling us we should let our subconscious take a shot at it. When we’re working on particularly thorny and complex matters - a thesis, a presentation, a novel, a business deal/plan, a remodel - we often hit a major block, or even have trouble starting at all. There’s so many directions, where do we go? But then, like lightning striking, we find inspiration. We’ve all felt it - eureka moments when we’re in the shower or frying an egg. A solution to a problem when we weren’t consciously thinking about it all. By forcing our way to an arbitrary finish line on complex matters, we impede our remarkable gift to figure things out subconsciously. Procrastination, in this case, is not telling you to not try or to not put in effort, but it is telling you to be patient.
(*Physical exercise - an exception?: From an evolutionary perspective, procrastination is useful for energy conservation: we evolved in a scarce environment with limited food and energy; therefore, we must be selective about our physical undertakings. Much like our love and binging of sugar is a survival instinct, so is our avoidance of unnecessary physical energy expenditure. However, today we face radically different challenges than our ancestors - those of abundance and addiction rather than scarcity and starvation. For these reasons, when we procrastinate our workout routine, that carries a higher noise ratio compared to when we procrastinate other tasks. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t some signal attached to this exercise procrastination (it is a ratio after all - not all or nothing) - it could be worth examining whether you’re doing the right routine for you and your specific makeup, circumstances, and goals.)
Viewing procrastination this way - as a useful signal, not noise to be ignored or powered through - has one more powerful effect. It forces us to treat the opposites of procrastination - urgency, passion, and inspiration - not also as passing noise, but as vital signals. We can turn towards these states with consideration, exploration, and —ultimately — action.