8 Nov 2010

The Power of Procrastination.

StressIt struck me the other day how often I see or hear people complain about their tendency to procrastinate.
Do Facebook statuses like 'must...get...to...work' or 'aaarrrgggh, hunted by deadlines... again!' sound familiar to you too?

I used to think I was a procrastinator. I hated how I always had to rush school or other projects because I didn't start until the deadline was breathing in my face. It's not that I was lazy, I was just really busy chasing other interests that seemed more urgent or more important than what I was supposed to be doing.

Still, I haven't missed many deadlines in my life. I'll gladly admit to the all-nighters, improbable stunts and miraculous bursts of energy it took me to get there, but I (nearly always) managed to deliver on time. Sometimes I was on my last edit a minute before presenting, on other occasions I was still swapping slides around while already smiling at the audience, but I made it.

I even notice that, the older I become, the better I seem to be getting at pinpointing that crucial moment: the last possible minute you have to start on something in order to finish on time. In recent years it's even happened that I've completed a task before its deadline. Several times!

For years I thought I was just really bad at planning and organising my time. Until I discovered the MBTI.
(I"m not going to go into the specifics here, but if you want to know more you can find an introduction here and do a personality test here or here.)
Getting deeper into the MBTI helped me to understand that I am by no means a bad planner, or hopeless at making decisions.

Instead I learnt that I have a natural preference to consider all possible options before deciding what I want to do and how I'm going to do it. And just like any other personality trait, this has advantages and disadvantages, depending on the situation at hand.

Unless there is something really urgent and important going on, my priorities will be variable. If there is no clear "best option" I'll try to avoid final decisions and continue taking in information, letting it simmer and crystallise. This is not a skillset that will ever make me a brilliant planner, but it does make me a great improviser - or crisis manager. And when I do make a decision, it has a million different small and bigger elements factored in, often leading to a better decision in the end.

Our world needs diversity of skills. We seem to be a species that specialises and then cooperates to get a better result. Our social units need people who can make decisions quickly, ├ánd others who consider the 'what ifs'. It's when we learn to value each other's strengths and understand which skillset to apply to which situation, that our tribes can thrive.

Tapping a PencilTherefore, next time you notice you're procrastinating: don't fret about it. Instead, ask yourself why you're postponing action or decision. There's always a reason. Maybe what seems urgent or important in one part of your life isn't all that pressing in the grand scheme. Maybe you can't decide to change jobs because you haven't got a clear view of your true talents or how you want to use them. Or you're putting off writing your next chapter or article because you're subconsciously aware that your current idea has holes the size of Jupiter that need to be sorted out first.

There will be times where you have no choice but to kick yourself into gear. But even then, if you can spare a minute to think what is holding you back and what still needs to be fixed, you'll likely end up with a better view on the situation and ultimately with a better result.

Procrastination is not a flaw. It might occasionally get you into trouble in this fast-result-driven world we live in, but really, it is your secret superpower.
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  1. If you're anywhere reasonably intelligent and want to deliver a decent end result, then you'll see too many pro's and cons on both sides, hampering your ability to decide on a course of action. You will have to lower your standards - i.e. accept the possibility of making the wrong choice and living with that - in order to get things done. That is my problem... :-)

  2. Fair point, but 'lowering your standards' is just one way of looking at it, I think. You might get a less than perfect result in one area, but when hardly anybody (or even nobody) would have noticed the difference, was it really worth your time and energy? (again: our time and energy as finite resources)
    Wouldn't we be better off spending that extra time on doing something else, getting better at it and producing higher quality results in that domain?

    Still, I strongly believe the world needs at least a few people who go through all the 'what ifs'. I just try to pick my battles now, which has saved up a lot of time that I can spend learning (and getting better at) something else.
    Makes me happier than spending half an hour trying to decide which kind of milk to buy. ;-)

  3. It's good to know I'm not just totally irresponsible with my tendency to wait until I'm down to the line to get most things done.

  4. Not at all, there's a name for your (read: our) 'condition', and it's actually a blessing as well as a curse :-)

  5. Hmm... I've been working lately to practice being realistic - I almost never get tasks done ahead of time although they generally get done. Your thoughts go one level deeper, though... the possiblity that "procrastinating" could have positive implications.... I'm going to have to sit and reflect on that... Thank you.

  6. @Queen Mahin: it's strange that doing something ahead of time is considered a good thing (while ahead of time could also be seen as 'too early'), and doing it at the last minute is considered 'too late'.

    Also, in a lot of contexts, it's become more important that something is done on time, rather than done well.

    We're such a fascinating species ...


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