A pos­i­tive de­lay


San­dra Jones, a busi­ness man­age­ment con­sul­tant, shows us the good side of pro­cras­ti­na­tion, which could help reap ben­e­fits, if done strate­gi­cally.

Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Adam Grant, Whar­ton School of Busi­ness, “We shouldn’t be afraid to start early, but equally we shouldn’t be afraid to be slow to fin­ish… pro­cras­ti­na­tion might just im­prove the end re­sult.”* When used sen­si­bly by lead­ers, pro­cras­ti­na­tion is a pow­er­ful man­age­ment strat­egy.

Yes or no? Is pro­cras­ti­na­tion a good thing? Chances are if you are like most peo­ple, you answered no. That is be­cause we have been con­di­tioned to be­lieve that pro­cras­ti­na­tion is a bad habit that needs to be bro­ken. The truth is that pro­cras­ti­na­tion can be an as­set to your pro­duc­tiv­ity when used wisely and with a con­crete re­sult in mind.

I once re­ported to a CEO and would cre­ate projects based on the con­ver­sa­tion he just com­pleted, or the news­pa­per ar­ti­cle he read the evening be­fore. I would jump right on the project, de­liver it promptly, to find out he had for­got­ten about it. Get­ting smarter, I waited for him to raise the topic a sec­ond time be­fore I con­sid­ered act­ing on it. Over time, it be­came eas­ier to de­ter­mine which ideas were se­ri­ous and de­served work time and which could sit on hold un­til they were men­tioned again. That strat­egy saved hun­dreds of hours of time.

Pro­cras­ti­na­tion is also a help­ful strat­egy when there is a fluid, quickly-evolv­ing sit­u­a­tion. The Wall Street Jour­nal on the phone? An ex­ec­u­tive ac­cused of ha­rass­ment? A fire in the plant? It can take time for facts to sur­face and con­flict­ing de­tails to un­ravel. Speak­ing too early with­out facts can back­fire and make a sit­u­a­tion worse. In these fast-mov­ing sit­u­a­tions, with peo­ple clam­or­ing for an­swers, it is most help­ful if you re­main calm, fo­cus on the over­all sit­u­a­tion, and de­cide from whom you will get the facts and when you will be avail­able to pro­vide a con­sid­ered re­sponse.

A third strate­gic use of pro­cras­ti­na­tion is at the be­gin­ning of a ma­jor project. Of­ten, new man­agers panic

when given a large as­sign­ment with a tight time­line. They feel they should drop every­thing and be­gin im­me­di­ately. That is not the most pro­duc­tive re­sponse. I con­stantly re­mind my­self if I do not have time to plan, I do not have time to do the job. Tak­ing time to see the big pic­ture— why is this project im­por­tant; how will this help the com­pany; what dif­fer­ence can this make in reach­ing a tar­get mar­ket or a fi­nan­cial met­ric—helps you nar­row your fo­cus to the in­for­ma­tion that mat­ters and drives the best po­ten­tial so­lu­tions.

The other side of the coin, when not to pro­cras­ti­nate, is more emo­tion­ally-laden and gives pro­cras­ti­na­tion its bad rep­u­ta­tion. Re­search tells us there are two main rea­sons for pro­cras­ti­na­tion that re­sult in un­healthy be­hav­ior: fear of suc­cess and the sec­ond, far more preva­lent cause, fear of fail­ure. Stud­ies have re­peat­edly shown that when peo­ple are con­fronted with an as­sign­ment that could bring in­creased vis­i­bil­ity or pro­mo­tion, they are of­ten stopped in their tracks.

Many man­agers hes­i­tate at the idea of tack­ling an im­por­tant as­sign­ment. They worry that their sched­ules are al­ready overly filled: they do not want the ex­tra work likely to come their way with suc­cess. They like the sta­tus quo. Suc­cess might mean up­set­ting the boss, re­as­sign­ment, pro­mo­tion, or hit­ting the top of the pay range with nowhere else to go ex­cept out. Most am­bi­tious em­ploy­ees and man­agers work through these feel­ings very quickly. That is why this is the smaller pool. There is a dif­fer­ence be­tween those that truly do not want to be the tur­tle with its head stuck out­side its shell and those that are merely exhibiting short-term panic. As a man­ager, it is crit­i­cal to know the dif­fer­ence. You can as­sure the re­luc­tant tur­tles that this is a spe­cial as­sign­ment with­out reper­cus­sions for change, while you pro­vide en­cour­age­ment to those who are tem­po­rar­ily timid.

When peo­ple talk about pro­cras­ti­na­tion be­ing prob­lem­atic, they are al­most al­ways con­sid­er­ing the pro­cras­ti­na­tor who ex­hibits a fear of fail­ure.

Pro­cras­ti­na­tion is also a help­ful strat­egy when there is a fluid, quick­lye­volv­ing sit­u­a­tion.

Over­whelm­ingly, re­search shows that this is the largest group of those that pro­cras­ti­nate. It is this group that ex­hibits the most cre­ativ­ity in the man­ner of pro­cras­ti­na­tion, of­fers the most var­ied ex­cuses, and earns the anger of co-work­ers, team project mem­bers, and man­agers. It is this pro­cras­ti­na­tor who de­serves man­age­ment at­ten­tion.

Fear of fail­ure is real and wired into our genes. Our flight or fight re­sponse hails from the time when man was vul­ner­a­ble in the raw phys­i­cal en­vi­ron­ment. When we en­ter any en­counter that feels strange or fright­en­ing, that same re­ac­tion oc­curs re­leas­ing adren­a­line, en­abling us to ei­ther run fast or fight hard. It is this adren­a­line rush that al­lows a soli­tary man to lift a car off a traf­fic vic­tim or carry a vic­tim twice one’s weight down sev­eral flights of stairs in a burn­ing build­ing. This is adren­a­line us­age at its finest. But when the fear is trig­gered by a vague, face­less, amor­phic ‘thing’, the adren­a­line slowly works it­self out of one’s sys­tem lead­ing to symp­toms such as lethargy or hunger that cause ef­fi­ciency and pro­duc­tiv­ity to de­crease.

This fear of fail­ure is usu­ally self-in­duced and worstcase sce­nar­ios imag­ined. I once had an out­stand­ing strate­gic plan­ning con­sul­tant tell me that the first time she was asked to craft a strate­gic plan, she was phys­i­cally ill. She was pos­i­tive she could not han­dle this chal­lenge: she was too in­ex­pe­ri­enced, too un­known to the team, too new to the in­dus­try. She was cer­tain she would be fired, would never find another job, and would end up liv­ing on the street in later life. That sounds ex­treme, but I have heard vari­a­tions of this story many, many times. Fear is a par­a­lyz­ing force, prey­ing on our minds caus­ing ir­ra­tional thought and in­ap­pro­pri­ate re­ac­tions. The para­dox is that while pro­cras­ti­nat­ing, we think we are de­lay­ing the fail­ure when we are set­ting a de­struc­tive pat­tern that is much more likely to re­sult in fail­ure.

As busi­ness peo­ple, we need to rec­og­nize that there are as many ways to ex­hibit fear of fail­ure as there are peo­ple who ex­pe­ri­ence it. While we are not trained as ther­a­pists, part of any man­ager’s job is to rec­og­nize this fear and find con­struc­tive, ap­pro­pri­ate ways to min­i­mize its more de­bil­i­tat­ing ef­fects.

The sin­gle most ef­fec­tive and most ba­sic strat­egy is to use ac­count­abil­ity as the weapon of choice in this fear fight. By de­ter­min­ing clear ob­jec­tives, quan­ti­ta­tive met­rics, and time-framed out­comes, the pro­cras­ti­na­tor loses the abil­ity to make ex­cuses. If you re­viewed the re­quired work prod­ucts on the time­line es­tab­lished, then it makes it far less likely the pro­cras­ti­na­tor will have to use any ex­cuse. She will al­ready be on the way to achieve­ment. If you add in qual­ity feed­back, then it makes re­work less likely and helps re­duce the ex­cuses.

For those whose pro­cras­ti­na­tion is a life­style con­stant, the so­lu­tion calls for a dif­fer­ent strat­egy. It may take a skilled pro­fes­sional to get to the root of the rea­sons for pro­cras­ti­na­tion. If the pro­cras­ti­na­tor is will­ing to work on these is­sues, then time is needed as well as a mea­sure of pa­tience. If there is con­tin­ued lack of im­prove­ment, then the most help­ful thing for all in­volved is to en­gage the dis­ci­pline process out­lined in the com­pany’s per­son­nel poli­cies. Once man­agers and lead­ers rec­og­nize the dam­age chronic pro­cras­ti­na­tion can have on morale, team mo­ti­va­tion, pro­duc­tiv­ity, op­er­at­ing ef­fec­tive­ness, and group ef­fi­cien­cies, it be­comes no dif­fer­ent than deal­ing with tar­di­ness, safety vi­o­la­tions, or other com­pany of­fenses.

Now, what is your an­swer? Is pro­cras­ti­na­tion good or bad?

By de­ter­min­ing clear ob­jec­tives, quan­ti­ta­tive met­rics, and time­framed out­comes, the pro­cras­ti­na­tor loses the abil­ity to make ex­cuses.

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