Thursday, April 05, 2020
Taking a positive view of procrastination
Putting things off may be a sign that you haven’t done what you need to do to make a firm decision
I’m amazed how many blog postings, articles, e-books, and books there are claiming to cure procrastination. It must be a global pandemic, worse than bird flu could ever be. If there are enough people who habitually procrastinate to justify so many words and prescriptions, it’s a miracle any work is done at all. Yet is procrastination always a failing? What if it’s telling you something that you need to hear?Hardly anyone ever looks at the positive benefits of procrastination. There seems to be a universal assumption it’s an almost moral failing to be eradicated. Perhaps that’s because of the prevalence of the Puritan Work Ethic. Procrastination is assumed to derive from laziness; and there’s no greater sin in the Puritan Work Ethic Catalog of Deadly Sins than laziness. And if it’s not laziness that’s the problem, it’s poor organization. Use this or that planning tool and never procrastinate again! Whipping up concern about procrastination is a wonderful marketing ploy for anyone with something like that to sell.
But are laziness or poor organization the only reasons for procrastination? Sure, both happen sometimes, but many of the “cures” put forward for poor organization are so simple it’s hard to believe people haven’t already tried them—even if they didn’t buy the expensive software yet. (It used to be planner diaries, but now it’s software. Same difference.) And while some people are lazy, I’m not at all sure that it’s as prevalent as all those anti-procrastination urgings would suggest.
I’m more interested in the reasons why people procrastinate. When you consider those, it seems procrastination may often be a sensible, even essential, response. Here are some possible reasons:
- One of the commonest reasons for putting something off until later is fear: fear of making a fool of yourself, fear of getting it wrong, fear of doing something you know that you can’t do properly. Fear is our natural warning system. It may be rational or irrational, but it should always cause you to slow down and think before going further.
Is the fear imaginary or real? Many are imaginary. You conjure up all kinds of potentially bad situations in your mind, then convince yourself they’re bound to happen. Total nonsense, of course. Still, you may have benefited by the moment’s pause to consider them and dismiss them as foolish. But not all fears are illusory. Some are warnings of real pitfalls ahead; problems you would do well to consider in advance. In such cases, procrastination may save you from serious harm.
- Next there’s that uneasy feeling you get about some choices. They seem sensible, but there’s a niggling question in the back of your mind. Something about them doesn’t feel right. So you procrastinate.
That’s entirely rational behavior. If something doesn’t feel right—and you aren’t absolutely forced into instant action—it’s logical to hold back until you can resolve the problem. Using some planning tool to override your unformed concerns isn’t a good idea. Once again, there may be nothing to worry about. But if there is, far better to take your time and get it straight first. Another plus for procrastination.
- You may also procrastinate because you suspect that you aren’t ready to handle something. Yet another good reason to wait. Or because you didn’t do the necessary preparatory work and think you might be caught out by lack of preparation. Or because you aren’t sure you’ve considered all the options. All excellent reasons for delay. All positive kinds of procrastination.
- Another common cause of holding back occurs when you believe you ought to do something, but you don’t want to do it. Surely this is a situation where pushing past your urge to procrastinate is essential?
Hold on a little. Why don’t you want to do it? You might be right to hold back. There are many cases where all those “shoulds” or “oughts” have no rational basis. They’re there because it’s the conventional thing to do, or someone else is pushing you to fit their agenda, or because of some rigid dogma or traditional belief. None of these make them right. If something is holding you back, you should at least explore it properly before allowing yourself to be bulldozed into action by a “should” or an “ought.” Take it as another warning and act on it.
- Then there’s one of the commonest reasons: pressure. There’s someone, usually the boss, driving you on to do something that you don’t believe is right, or even sensible. You’ve raised your objections, but have been told to keep quiet and do what you’re told. Maybe you’re under pressure to make sure “the numbers” look right, but you know that isn’t in the organization’s best interests longer term. Is it right to delay? Or should you forget your scruples and comply? Not an easy decision, and one that almost anyone would want to take time over.
Many years ago, I was told this story by a policeman in Birmingham, England. The newspapers had been full of dire warnings about the terrible state of local schoolchildrens’ understanding of simple arithmetic. Everything was blamed, from incompetent teaching to laziness amongst pupils and apathy from parents. My policeman friend didn’t believe a word of it. He told me about a young man he’d arrested many times for various betting scams. This boy (he was fifteen) had almost no education and could barely read or write. Ask him any normal math problem and he’d be lost. But he could calculate betting odds, and the pay-out on the most complicated multiple series of linked bets, in the blink of an eye. No mistakes. What he truly wanted to do, he did. The rest meant nothing to him.
Before you sweep your hesitation aside, stop and think. What may it be telling you? Is it just laziness and disorganization? Or are you being rushed into something that is making you feel uneasy—perhaps with very good reason.
One of the worst aspects of many organizational cultures is the over-emphasis on action and related denial of the importance of taking time to reflect fully before making any important decisions. Rushing intro something unprepared, or with too little consideration, is hardly a sound basis for success. Yet tens of thousands of people have swallowed the idea that, to be a good leader, you have to be willing to take snap decisions on just about everything. There are even books extolling the supposed merits of the process: making decisions in the blink of an eye, rather than taking the time needed to consider options and alternatives properly. Against a measure like that, almost any response other than an instant one looks like procrastination. Perhaps that’s why it suddenly seems to be so prevalent.
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