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In Defense of Procrastination

It seems that procrastination has gotten a bad reputation these days. I hear people cursing it from the office, the pulpit, and even academia. There’s no defending the fact the this tool, if in the wrong hands, can dig the user into a corner. But when used with skill it can be a powerful scheduling aid. Let me explain why and then give some tips on how to use it properly.

The Procrastination Tool

For those people whose schedules tend to be booked by the minute, procrastination is like a great admin assistant. Simply, it forces a hard limit on the amount of time a given task may take. The power in this should not be underestimated as it prevents the following problems:

  • Task Time Overrun

By scheduling a task near to a deadline there is no possibility for task to take more time than budgeted, assuming its a hard deadline. Yes this is a risk and quality may suffer, but its also a reward.

  • Over Completing

How many times have you had a project “good enough” and then spent days making it “perfect” only to be way over your time budget, and then fighting fires on other projects? Procrastination prevents (or at least limits the damage from) this natural human tendency.

  • Priority Jumping

Good procrastinators will always put the lowest priority tasks at the last possible minute. This ensures that the high priority tasks are attended to first. In the event that there is not enough time for both, the high priority task can preempt the low priority task which will simply miss its deadline. Depending on the tasks this may be appropriate. In other cases it may be better to reduce the time for the low priority task in order to get something completed. Either way, this type of fact-based decision can only be made at the last possible minute by the trained procrastinator. Attempting to make this call up front is only guessing, and if your time estimates were correct then you wouldn’t find yourself in this situation anyhow. Instead of juggling the high-priority tasks around the low, the effective procrastinator does the opposite.

  • Lack of Motivation

There is not much in life that is more motivating then an upcoming deadlines. Using this fact, a good procrastinator ensures they are motivated. This keeps life interesting, and provides more intense satisfaction when the job is finished. It also tends to cause tasks to be completed in a shorter amount of time.

The Problem

Most people do not know how to procrastinate! In fact, for most people it is not a tool but merely a response to their circumstances. For a number of reasons; perhaps fear, boredom, or fire-fighting (the project mis-management kind); people neglect a task until the last possible minute. This type of procrastination is extremely troublesome for at least three reasons.

First, it causes the person stress. The abuser knows that they should be working on the task but ignores their subconscious. Compare this to the experienced procrastinator who can relax (or most likely work on other tasks) knowing that the task will be completed, when scheduled, in the time allotted.

Second, because response based procrastination is not planned it tends not to leave enough time to complete the task. The fallout, of course, is late nights and missed deadlines. Our hypothetical trained procrastinator will not worry because they know the task will be taken care of. The best-of-the-best procrastinators will, whenever possible, not even have a night between scheduled task completion and the deadline.

Third, it lacks class. This is the high-school approach to time management.

The Tips

Did you really think I wouldn’t leave these till the very end? Here are my suggestions for using procrastination.

  • Plan Your Procrastination

This is they key. If procrastination isn’t planned its just not going to work. Pick the tasks or projects that you want to put off, estimate their time, and mark it on your calendar.

  • Start on Time

Since you’ve left no extra time it is key to start the procrastinated tasks on time. Of course, if there are high-priority tasks you may decide (plan) not to start the task. As this is one of the reasons we use procrastination this may happen more than you would like. Take heart in knowing that at least its the low priority tasks that aren’t getting done. The main point here is the decision making process. If your slipping start times by accident then you are using the procrastination technique your mother warned you about.

  • Get Experience

Effective procrastination requires you to make reasonable estimates of the time a task will take. Do NOT attempt to do this on tasks with high risk. Of course, this point is mute if your schedule is so full that the amount of time for a task is determined by its priority and not the expected amount of work. Re-read the previous sentence as the distinction is quite critical, and it tends to be where procrastination is most effective.

  • Understand Its Strengths

Procrastination allows you to place a hard limit on the amount of time a task will take. Use it for tasks where this is an advantage. The best tasks are those that you know can be done in a short amount of time, but tend to drag on for less-than-required improvements. Think about tasks that can get drawn on by fancy cover letters, graphics, and other nit-picking.

  • Understand Its Weaknesses

Because there is a hard limit on a tasks time it should not be used on high-priority tasks with a lot of risk. One of the purposes of using this tool is to allow you to get going on these type of tasks right away, even if their deadline is further out.

  • Don’t use unnecessarily

“Never put off for tomorrow what can be done today.” Procrastination is mostly useful in situations where there is not enough time to complete all the tasks. If this is not the case then get on with the work! Its always better to start the work sooner, as we all know things take longer than estimated.

If your the type of person who is going to stress about something you have chosen to procrastinate, even though you understand the advantages and know their is enough time to complete the task, then don’t do it. Your not going to experience one of the greatest benefits.

Also, if your the type of person who is going to stay up all night in order to over-complete the task no matter how late you leave it, then procrastination is not for you. Yoga perhaps, but not procrastination.

Conclusions

Procrastination is your friend, if used correctly. I hope this has not been just a lesson in semantics and has provided some useful tips for those who recognize the high value of time. If you want someone else’s opinion on this, who is arguably a little more influential, then check out Paul Grahams essay on good and bad procrastination.

Thanks for reading, see you at the deadline.

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