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The joy of procrastination


Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Mon, July 11, 2016 - 11:37:43

I have long meant to write an essay on procrastination. Having just been sent a link to a TED talk on a virtue of procrastination, this seems a good time to move it to the front burner [1].

An alarming stream of research papers describe interventions to get chronic procrastinators like myself on the ball: wearable devices, displays mounted in kitchens, email alerts, project schedule sheets, and community discussion groups (think “Procrastinators Anonymous”). Papers on multitasking and fragmented attention suggest that procrastination contributes to problems with stress, health, career, and life in general.

Virtually everyone confesses to occasionally delaying the start or completion of a task. About a fifth of us are classified as chronic procrastinators. If you are with me in the chronic ward, cheer up: I am here to call out the virtues of procrastination.

Procrastination and creativity

The TED talk describes lab studies that support the hypothesis that people who are given a task benefit by incubation—by putting it on a back burner for a while, rather than plunging in. This is consistent with reports that after working for a time on a problem, an insight came out of the blue or in a dream. Obviously, immediately completing a task—no procrastination—leaves no time for incubation. (Waiting to the last minute to engage could also leave no chance for incubation.) The speaker concludes, “Procrastinating is a vice when it comes to productivity, but it can be a virtue for creativity.” Mmmm. Let’s consider productivity virtues that arise from procrastinating.

Procrastination and productivity

My team, once upon a time, was planning a workflow management system. Through daily on-site interviews, we studied the work practices of people with different roles in a manufacturing plant. One was a senior CAD designer. At any point in time, he had been assigned several parts. Each had a due date. When a part was finished, it was checked in. We thought that by tracking check-ins, our system could automatically assign the next part to the designer with the fewest parts not yet checked in.

We made a surprising discovery. Instead of working on a part until finishing it, the outstanding designer procrastinated on every one. He stopped when the remaining work could be completed in about half a day and waited until he was asked for it. This was often a little after the original due date—why did he choose to be late? He did so because parts had dependencies on other parts assigned to other designers; changes in theirs could force changes in his. It was more efficient to accumulate forced changes, then at the end reopen his task, ramp up, and resolve all remaining work. Finishing early would mean that subsequent change requests would force him to reopen the task and possibly undo work. Because final requests for delivery came with a day to spare, having a manageable effort left was fine. Procrastination enhanced productivity. (Unfortunately, our automatic workflow assignment tool was a non-starter, when every task was left open and the system unable to detect whether a part was 5% or 95% done.)

On any group project, you must decide when it is most effective to jump in and when it is better to delay until others have had a turn. Sometimes a request for input is withdrawn before the work is due, benefitting a procrastinator. I know people who ignore email requests, saying “If it is important, they will ask again.” I don’t do that, but if I sense that a request is not firm, I may wait and confirm that it is needed when the requested response date is close but comfortable. If the work remains green-flagged, I may get a benefit, such as incubation or evolving requirements. For example, this essay profited from being put off until the TED talk appeared: I could include the creativity section. 

Another productivity benefit will be understood by anyone with perfectionist tendencies: As long as you know how much time it will take to complete a job, by waiting until just enough time remains, you can eliminate the temptation to waste time tinkering with inconsequential details. The scare literature often links the source of procrastination to a feared or stressful task, which grows more feared and stressful when left to the last minute. In the meantime, it hovers overhead as a source of dread. Yes, it happens. I spent some childhood Sunday afternoons, when homework loomed, watching televised football that didn’t really mean anything to me. I also remember aversive procrastination in college, and 30 years later still have dreams in which I realize that I’m enrolled in a class with an exam approaching that I had forgotten to study for. Perhaps this symbolizes procrastination-induced anxieties? I detect less avoidance-based procrastination now, but tasks do slip that I wish would get done—cleaning out the garage, reading a book, writing a blog post. 

What is easy to overlook, though, is that at least for me, procrastination can be positively wonderful.

The joy of procrastination

When my primary task is a deliverable due at hour H, I estimate the time T that it will take to complete it without undue stress. Then I put off working on it until H-T, leaving just enough time to do it comfortably. In that time, I clear away short tasks such as reviews and reference letters, and then some that are not necessary but are very appealing, such as writing to friends, seeing a movie, starting a book, or writing a blog post. Tasks that are so much fun that accomplishing one produces an endorphin wave. The euphoria carries over to the big task, helping me breeze through it. In this procrastination period I may benefit from incubation and the avoidance of endless tinkering, but the exhilaration is the key benefit.

You may wonder, doesn’t this conflict with the advice to provide rewards after making progress on a big task? With kids we say, “Give them candy after they finish the assignment.” I get that, but sometimes the sugar rush gets you through the assignment faster, and in better spirits. 

The skill of procrastinating 

Experience is required to make the judgment calls. The key to realizing positive outcomes of delaying action is the accurate estimation of the time needed to complete a deferred task to your satisfaction without incurring unpleasant stress. Especially when young, it is easy to be overly optimistic about how quickly a task will be completed. Objective self-awareness is required to develop forecasting skill, but with experience and attention we can do it.

Especially when young, I experienced procrastination-amplified dread. I have regrets about tasks postponed until time ran out. When I misjudge, the task usually gets done, but with more stress than I would have preferred. The residue may haunt a future dream. Nevertheless, procrastination has enabled me to accomplish many of the things that I have most loved doing. Having finished this post, I have a big job to get back to.

Endnote

1. After writing this I learned of this article by Adam Grant, the TED speaker. It has more examples. Like my essay, it starts with a confession of procrastination.

Thanks to Gayna Williams, John King, and Audrey Desjardins for discussions and pointers.


Posted in: on Mon, July 11, 2016 - 11:37:43

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin is a principal design researcher at Microsoft.
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@Agastya309@gmail.com (2016 08 22)

I can really relate to the CAD designer you mentioned. My work is somewhat related. As a UI designer for an evolving system to manage mortgages and property taxes, I get change requests from every stake holder. Everyone wants it done now. I find delaying actually working on a small bit saves me time as I can finish a bigger piece with everyone’s 2 cents incorporated. Nearly 90% of such “top priority” CR’s are redundant or can be done away with. Meaning the same output is available via another simpler method.

But at least in my case I have to keep everyone informed that so and so will get done. Just, not now. I send regular emails mentioning the due action items which keeps the suits happy. Most people just want an acknowledgment that their brain wave will be considered.

In the end I do whatever I feel is right. With least effort from me. Everyone is happy.