A Diet of Early Worms: the Case Against Procrastination
For those of you who have mastered denying the temptation to pick at procrastination's bountiful buffet, this article will be a waste of your time. I'd suggest moving on to something else—this handy jazz album primer, how to turn an old shirt into a pocket square, or this awesome list of 14 burger recipes.
But for those of you who find it difficult to resist the siren song of putting stuff off until the last minute, or who (worse yet) willingly delay working until the 11th hour, let's take a moment to examine the evidence that procrastination is a horrible idea.
First, let this disclaimer be known: I am a recovering procrastinator. I say “recovering” because I've finally stepped in the opposite direction from relishing the last-minute rush and relying on it for motivation, and have begun making moves to eradicate it from my life. But it's a hard habit to break, and I still constantly catch myself unconsciously veering into that lane. (I confess: I actually wrote this post at the last minute. Shame, shame.)
What's the allure of procrastination?
For one, it's all about immediate gratification: I only put off the stuff that I have to do but don't feel like doing, in favor of something that I do want to do at the moment. Self-discipline is uncomfortable. Filing your taxes feels like a burden? Don't worry about it right now, April 15th is a long way off. Bathroom needs cleaning? You don't have any company coming soon, so there's no rush. Need to write an article on procrastination? It shouldn't take too long, so you can totally wait until Sunday night to start for Monday morning's deadline.
It probably all started around middle school, when it felt dorky to be on time. Maybe it was growing up in the 90's, when we were still about a decade out from rise of “geek cool.” But at least on TV, the cool kids certainly never started tasks right away, maintained organization, and worked steadily in order to meet deadlines. Lateness was like a leather biker jacket, and I rocked it with proportionate sneer.
If I look at my tenure as a pro procrastinator through the lens of the behavior-reward cycle, I've gotten my dog biscuit every single time I waited until the last minute to perform. A looming deadline creates an adrenaline rush, and that rush is the magic fuel that powers the procrastinator's rocket—and the thing is, it's been extremely rare for me to fail on delivery. As a chronic delayer, I even got to thinking I could only get creative under pressure.
Guys, that is so dadblamed immature.
I hope I don't have to convince any of you how unhealthy procrastination is, but maybe you need a little reminder. So here are three reasons why procrastination is like shooting yourself in the leg before a footrace.
1. Procrastination is decidedly uncool.
The procrastinator may feign an air of superiority, kicking back and having all the fun while the responsible people work like chumps—but when you allow barely enough time to get your tasks done, you're working with a tighter margin of error. The last time I checked, predicting the future isn't possible, so you don't know what monkey wrenches are in store for your plans. Raise the stakes and add in more variables, and the chance for it all to fall apart grows exponentially. To date, I have yet to see anyone keep their cool when they're running out of time to accomplish something meaningful.
2. Procrastination is wasteful.
A good plan optimizes resources and blesses effort with effectiveness and efficiency. When you put off your work, you've given yourself zero time for anything but the bare minimum. Usually that means you don't have time to plan, which means you haven't optimized your your resources. That translates to waste.
On top of that, you may be able to do OK work in a single pass, but great work needs revision, and revision needs time. Plowing hard at the last minute discourages revision and encourages slipshod quality, which is an insult to your talent and intelligence, as well as to the time of the people you're working for.
3. Procrastination is selfish.
In the early days of my illustration studio, my solution to problems was brute force. Running out of money? Work longer hours, produce more stuff. Didn't plan a project well, and now you're up against a deadline? Work all night, send the files in the morning, sleep until 3 in the afternoon. Didn't budget, and now you're broke? Ramen and repeat.
Let me tell you, having kids changed it all. When our daughter was born, suddenly here was a little person totally dependent on us, when she needed us, not when it was convenient for our work schedule. We had to dramatically cut our work hours right after she was born, and my wife still only currently works in our studio part-time. Less resources, tighter budget. We simply don't have time for the inefficiency that comes with winging it, because our daughter pays for it when we do have to work late.
Waiting for urgency in order to act is just a crutch.
As you've read this post, you may have seen that I've lumped in procrastination with lack of planning. They're separate issues, but in my mind, the lines are blurred, and the effects are the same.
What's the solution, then?
Planning and swift action. Outpace emergency by thinking proactively.
Here's a quick guide on how to make an effective plan:
1. Write down your non-negotiables. What do you have to accomplish?
2. Determine your timeframe. Everything important needs a deadline, even if you have to make it up. (And remember Hofstadter's Law: “Everything takes twice as long as you think it will, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.” Ponder that one for a moment.)
3. Repeat step 2 for your other resources. Especially money. What's it going to take to get x, y, z done? Boom. Now you've got a budget.
4. Brainstorm on a scratch sheet every step you need to take. Copy down all of your steps in order on a fresh sheet of paper. Use a pencil so you can erase and rewrite. (Messy surroundings, messy mind.)
5. Chip away at your list. Course-correct as needed.
Bonus: if the project is more complex or the stakes are really high, build in contingencies: substitutes for actionables, a plan B in case it the whole plan gets shot to pieces.)
Note: in case you need a place to put your plans, might I suggest a bullet journal?