Procrastination, n. The action or habit of postponing or putting something off; delay, dilatoriness. Often with the sense of deferring though indecision, when early action would have been preferable. Oxford English Dictionary.
My intention was to arise from the settee and take the tea things into the kitchen. I’d managed to reach Stage two of the three stage procedure (Stage one is thinking about it, Stage two is announcing it, Stage three is doing it). Having discovered that thinking about it had no effect, I made a dynamic and bold statement that I was going to do the deed. (I think what I actually said was something along the lines of, “I suppose I ought to drag my carcass into an upright position so I can take all this detritus away”, but let’s not split hairs.)
In response, my father-in-law, whose name is Frank, came out with a statement that really ought to be immortalised as “Frank’s Law of Procrastination”. He said:
If you're slow enough, someone else will do it.
Sound advice, and so true, generally speaking. But after laughing, I started to think that there are times when procrastination is, actually, the most sensible course of action. Or inaction. And although procrastination usually has negative and unflattering connotations, if you look at the OED’s definition (above), you’ll notice that it says “Often with the sense of indecision…”. Often, not always. There is, it seems, nothing oxymoronic about the phrase “planned procrastination”.
So when would procrastination be a good strategy to adopt? I can think of a number of situations.
Freedman’s Variation of Frank’s Law of Procrastination
If you wait long enough, someone else will beta test it.
There are those of us who, whilst liking the sense of exhilaration one gets from trying out something completely new, have become rather fed up with having trashed computer systems, security holes, and other unforeseen consequences. These days, I never buy anything until it’s on at least version 3.
Freedman’s Law of Intemperate Emails
We all know this one, and I’m surprised that as far as I can find out, nobody else has so egotistically given their name to it (my excuse is that I needed a snappy heading to this bit). When you hammer out an email reply telling your correspondent to do something to themselves which is anatomically impossible, that’s when you hit the Send key when you meant to hit the Delete key. Having done something like that myself once, I now draft a response in my word processor, or as an email reply but with the name(s) of the recipient(s) removed, so that even if I do accidentally hit the Send key nothing will happen.
Freedman’s Law of Decision-Taking
(You can tell that I’m on a roll here, can’t you?). I’m very good at taking decisions, but I’d not be the right person to have commanding you on a battlefield. I like to look at the situation from different angles, seek other people’s opinions and then sleep on it. Obviously there are exceptions to every rule (I wonder if that rule has an exception?), but I usually find that if I resist my urge to respond straight away I end up thinking of nuances and issues which had previously escaped me.
A good example of how planned procrastination is a useful device is when a client says they would like the bid, or case study, or vision document or whatever I’m writing for them to include X. It seems a good idea at first, until I think about it and realise that including X will mean also including Y and Z in order to explain and contextualise X, and doing all that would put us way over the word limit. But after sitting on it for a day, I realise that if I said W (do keep up at the back), it would get across the whole idea of X but without going into so much detail.
We live in an age when instantaneous responses are possible, expected and, furthermore, highly valued. But I think we need to ensure that youngsters are taught the value of waiting and thinking, in spite of all the pressures to do otherwise.
If you enjoyed reading this article, you’ll probably also like 21 rules for computer users.
If you manage a large team, including people with more specialised technical expertise than yourself, how do you ensure that your decisions are good ones?
Is decision-making an art or a science?
I think this is an important question. If you think it's an art, then it is only a short step away from saying "some people have 'it', and others don't." And if you think like that, then it is very hard, perhaps even impossible, to improve your decision-making.
So, I come down firmly in the camp that says it's a science. In other words, it can be approached methodically, and the process can be improved.
What do we mean by a "good decision"?
Some decisions are good in the short term, but not necessarily so in the longer term. Every parent understands this: when your two-year old is throwing a tantrum in the supermarket because she wants some sweets, do you give in for the sake of peace and quiet, or ride it out? The first option is undoubtedly better from a peaceful existence point of view, and to avoid embarrassment, but it's very much a short-term solution. In the long run, the child learns that tantrums work, and so your easy way out will cause more of the same in the future.
So, a good decision is one which:
Furthers the aims of the team in terms of its strategic plan.
Does not sacrifice the long-term for the short-term.
Included the team, or at least leaves the team feeling that it has been listened to.
Less is more
So, how do you arrive at good decisions? Your decisions can only be as good as the information you have on which to base them. But "good" does not mean "plenty". In fact, the more information you have, the less likely you are to be able to use it effectively. The best thing to do is to ask one of your team to summarise the issues for you.
My preference has always been for what I call the "A4 Briefing". I don't care how complex a problem is, it should be explainable in no more than a side of A4 (or Letter if you're in the USA). In fact, one of my bosses insisted on no more than half a dozen bullet points.
Ask for options
What I also like is for the person who is summarising the information to outline some options. Nothing too complicated -- that would defeat the object -- but just enough to give me some hooks on which to hang my thought processes.
Take time out
Swans on the lake at Audley End. Watching them can help in your decision-making.
I think we have a tendency to hammer away at a problem, but often the best thing to do after some initial thought is to go away from it completely. An afternoon spent by a river, say, can work wonders, because while you're walking, your subconscious is working.
Now that's what I call efficiency!