When faced with some unpleasant or difficult task, rushing to get it over with can lead to poor decisions.

I see many articles claiming to help people with the “problem” of procrastination, but I have never found one that explains how useful if can be. I’ve decided to put that right. Avoiding decisions and worrying situations—especially unpleasant ones—is a very understandable human trait. But sometimes it’s the only logical course of action as well. Here’s a pat on the back for all procrastinators!

When faced with a difficult situation or a tough decision, plunging ahead and acting on the principle of “Let’s get it over with” may not help. And that isn’t just my idea. Research from Emory University, published in the journal Science in May 2006, shows how dread of what might happen is a powerful force that pushes people into action simply to “get it over with,” even if the more rational course of action would be to delay. So strong is this motivation that it could even cause people to accept more pain than they needed to, just to get it over with.

The research found that the more people fear a negative outcome, the more likely they are to choose “pain now” rather than wait, even if the pain at the end of the waiting period would be less. It seems the discomfort of waiting, fearing something bad is going to happen, is judged worse than accepting the pain right away.

I’ve certainly experienced this many times in my own life, sometimes almost hurrying to face something I know is likely to hurt, rather than accepting the misery of waiting with the threat still looming over me. I’m sure it affects others in a similar way, even if the pain they anticipate turns out in the end to be, as so often, due mostly to imagination.

So let’s think about how any decision to delay, or to push ahead, is critically affected by how people feel during the waiting period.

Bad feelings versus bad decisions

This is an important question for people in the workplace. Rushing into something you fear, just to get it over with, can easily cause you to make a bad decision. At the very least, waiting a little might allow circumstances to change, as well as giving you more time to think through the options. Maybe the tendency to prefer immediate action over delay isn’t simply the modern urge for instant gratification. Maybe it also has a lot to do with the desire to get the bad stuff over with as quickly as possible. Thinking, reflecting, exploring are almost always more rational responses; but all involve delay, while the dread of a bad outcome still hangs in the air. Better to “get it done” and move on, than to think about it too much and face that anxiety from anticipation and imagination.

By knowing that the fear that something bad may happen—perhaps is almost certain to—is such a powerful motivator to instant action—even if that action guarantees facing much of the anticipated pain right away—it should be possible to make the alternative decision to wait and use whatever time you can get to work on getting it right, not just doing it quickly.

But why delay?

The more difficult and scary the decision, the more useful delay ought to be. Who knows what may happen in the meantime? Who knows what fresh ideas may occur to you while you wait—ideas that may ward off the problem entirely? Besides, whatever time is available can then be used to explore more options and consider more alternatives.

That’s the key. The procrastinators who leave decisions or actions until the very last moment—especially if they may involve pain or trouble—purely out of habit and indecisiveness aren’t doing themselves any favors. Especially if they waste the time ignoring the problem and simply hoping it will go away; or filling their heads with ever more wild imaginings about the terrible outcomes that may beset them. Only those who delay consciously—are helping themselves; the ones who use every moment of time during that delay in productive ways. You have to use the waiting period, either to keep your eyes open for any change that might be relevant, or to think long and hard about new options for dealing with whatever painful issue is still looming over you.

Maybe that’s why so many avoid doing this. They not only have to live with the dread longer, they have to make it more real by thinking about it. So they prefer to make even a bad decision if it cuts off the pain and anxiety sooner. In a world where emotions have so often come to prevail over logic, that makes a twisted kind of sense—though the likely result is still more pain and misery to come when those instant bad decisions bear fruit.

Benefits of going slow

For more thoughtful people though, bearing a little emotional pain today is a small price to pay for avoiding much more discomfort—real as well as emotional—in the future. Going slow isn’t simply about curbing the speed of action or thought. It’s more about knowing when to be patient and allow things to take their course, and when to act decisively.

One of the guiding principles of Slow Leadership is expressed as “right tempo.” that means choosing your speed carefully, consciously, and in tune with the actual demands of the situation. It’s an important factor in success, as well as limiting stress. Sadly, the current fashion is to despise patience and act as if the the only available speeds are fast, faster, and flat out.

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