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prə(ʊ)ˌkrastɪˈneɪʃ(ə)n and decision making

Can procrastination ever be a good thing?

A simple enough question I guess… to which your reflexive response is probably a firm “no”; but I believe it may be more nuanced than that.

Perhaps the way to approach this is to identify what might be loosely called “good procrastination” and “bad procrastination”.  In the spirit of discussion, I’m going to stick my head above the parapet and have a go at identifying some characteristics of good and bad procrastination. As you will see, some are intentional, some accidental and some serendipitous; either way I believe that they are all situations we can relate to, and all influence the outcomes of our decisions.

Good procrastination:
  • When not making a decision means that more information becomes available which consequently pushes the balance of judgement in one clear direction. By waiting, we know more.
  • When procrastination results in the situation unexpectedly resolving itself.
  • When a longer period of reflection enables our subconscious to work on the problem in the background, resulting in a “gut feeling” of which way to go.
  • When an apparently clear decision, can be re-enforced or overturned by “sleeping on it”.
  • When time allows the power of persuasion to fall away from arguments for one side or the other, leaving the facts themselves more clearly visible.
Bad Procrastination:
  • When indecision is born out of fear of the outcomes.
  • When procrastination is really the fear of making a hard choice you know to be right.
  • When it originates from a fundamental fear of being the one who is the visible decision maker, with all the associated implications of responsibility and leadership.
  • When we indulge our egos by deluding ourselves that we have such an important decision that we must “take time”. Most of the things we decide on a daily basis don’t have far reaching consequences so let’s see them for what they are – day to day choices. Sometimes decisions just need to be made. Now.
  • When indecision leads to a deficit of leadership, or organizational paralysis. Part of leadership is taking risks, and whilst a responsible leader seeks to reflect on these to arrive at the best outcome, there is a point at which indecision becomes corrosive and damaging.

To my mind the defining characteristic of good procrastination is when we make an active decision to do it – when we chose, on balance, to wait.  We make a decision about whether to make a decision now or later. (This of course raises the question of whether this is truly procrastination or not, since arguably no one procrastinates intentionally…)

As for bad procrastination – to me, it’s about being honest with ourselves.  Most of the characteristics described above relate to fear.  Fear of change. Fear of taking responsibility. Fear of failure.  I believe these are healthy emotions, but we have to see them objectively – and respond accordingly.  I think we can probably all to learn to better separate the emotion of decision making from the outcome, and by so doing bring clarity and objectivity to our choices.  Easily said, hard to do.

rock, paper, scissors

So how does this relate to our professional lives? 

Firstly, I think it allows us to see procrastination for what it is, a mix of positives and negatives.

Secondly, perhaps reflecting on this issue allows us to embrace decisive action when it is appropriate.  An opportunity may be ephemeral – perhaps a chance meeting with a potential donor – and sometimes fortune favors the brave.  The real point is that you have made an active decision to respond to a choice in a certain way, and have set aside fear and emotion from that process.

Finally, I would suggest that approaching what is frequently seen as a character flaw with an open mind is a great opportunity for professional and person growth.  Is your procrastination, on balance, a positive for you? (in which case maybe you need to call it something else. pro-crastination? ponder-fication? pause-ification?).

Conversely, is your procrastination making you ineffective? If this is the case then I would (humbly) suggest that you need to review the reasons for your procrastination, and avoid simply allowing you (and society) to lazily label yourself as a “procrastinator”.

So next time you ask a colleague to “let me think about it” – perhaps you aught to ask yourself why you’re asking for time?