It’s a weekday morning, and you decide to get right to work on a project that has an afternoon deadline. Before you begin, however, you decide to give your phone a quick check. Then you see a text or a post by a friend that you feel you need to comment on. Then you hear a song that you like and check to see what other songs that artist has done. Then you realize you haven’t checked your e-mail in while, so you do that. When you come up for air, you notice that it’s time for lunch.
Let’s face it; we are a distracted society. We are bombarded each day with information, ideas and images that take our attention away from what we are doing. Technology has helped many of us perfect the fine art of procrastination.
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If you do a quick search engine check for procrastination, which by definition is the habit of putting off or delaying something that requires attention, most of the articles are filled with details on why procrastination is bad for you and how you can stop doing it. While putting things off indefinitely can be a problem – and when done regularly can land both you and your company in hot water — there can be some real benefits to doing work at the last minute.
First, pressure can bring out your best work. It’s not always true that the more time you have, the better you do on something. Sometimes waiting until the last minute can bring out your best. With less time, you can narrow your focus and can accomplish more in less time. By forcing yourself to complete a task in less time, you eliminate any extraneous tasks or busywork and can get right down to work.
Procrastination can pare things down to essentials
Procrastination forces you to limit your distractions. Sure you may have spent the morning on other things, but when the deadline is nearer, some procrastinators find a way to silence the phone, shut the office door and get to work. Maybe you thought you needed eight hours to get that report ready because that’s how long it took you last time, but you didn’t factor in that you are more experienced now and don’t have to do as much background work, for example.
Next, procrastination can open up time to do some creative thinking. When you put something off and shift your focus elsewhere, your brain is still working on the first project. We use the phrase “put it on the back burner,” when something is put off, and it is an appropriate phrase. The back burner is still on; it’s just not heating at such a high rate as the front burner. John Perry, a Stanford University and the author of The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, calls this phenomenon “structured procrastination. “
“The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing,” he writes. “Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, such as gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it.” Perry explains that by performing these relatively unimportant tasks, we give our brains the time and space to work on something more important – like the very work we are putting off.
In a Seoul National University study published in The Journal of Social Psychology in 2005, researcher Jin Nam Choi specified that there are two types of procrastinators: passive procrastinators, who put off activities because they are unable to complete them in a timely manner, and active procrastinators, who delay tasks on purpose because they enjoy working under pressure.
Choi and co-researcher Angela Hsin Chun Chu, of Columbia University developed a scale to distinguish between the two procrastination types in a study of 230 university undergraduates in Canada. They found that active procrastinators had academic performance outcomes that were almost the same as or even better than people who did not procrastinate.
In his book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, author Frank Partnoy, a practicing corporate lawyer who previously worked as an investment banker at Morgan Stanley, asserts that when we are faced with a decision, we should determine how much time we have to make it, and then wait until the last possible moment to make it. Partnoy claims that due to the pressure of our technology-filled lives, most of us react too quickly. “We don’t, or can’t take enough time to think about the increasingly complex challenges we face, he writes. “Technology surrounds us, speeding us up.” In most cases, Partnoy says, the longer we wait, the better the outcome.
If you have taught a class or even a seminar, you probably have seen the benefits of waiting. Have you posed a question to your students and then only waited briefly for an answer? Sure you have. When you don’t hear an immediate response, it can be uncomfortable, and so you jump in with an answer. But the more experience you have, the more comfortable you feel waiting a few moments to get your responses.
Other examples that Partnoy uses to illustrate the benefit of waiting are: a comedian’s ability to pause before a punchline, a baseball player being able to wait until the right pitch comes along and a company being willing to wait to hang on to a new concept or product introduction even if initial consumer reaction was lukewarm.
Carnegie Mellon neuroscientist David Creswell did a study in 2012 in which he asked participants to consider the purchase of a car based on multiple wants and needs. One group had to choose immediately. A second group was asked to consciously solve the problem. After being given the task the third group was given another job, something that was designed to hold the members’ attention but would allow their sub-conscious minds to keep working on the original task. It was this third group that did by far the best at choosing a car that met their overall needs.
Intentional active procrastination is an art, it seems. It is a way of using your time, not wasting your time. Lest you think you now have a built-in excuse for being late with your projects or other work-related assignments, researchers say active procrastination does not work for everyone.
It is essential to know yourself and your abilities well enough to distinguish between the times when you need to think and act quickly and when you are able to think and act slowly. The important word in both scenarios is thinking.