The Problem With Procrastination

We all know that procrastination is a bad thing.

We really shouldn’t be doing it; putting problems off till tomorrow that we could be dealing with today. Action is good. Being proactive about things is even better. An immense amount of praise will flow towards the employees that are being proactive, dealing with issues before they become problems.

Now, there’s something slightly disconcerting about all this proactivity. Dealing with problems before they become problems? You have to wonder how many man-hours are being wasted on issues that were never actually going to become a problem in the first place. “Good news: I’ve been proactive about our polar bear problem” – “Err… are we going to have problems with polar bears?” – “Well, not now that I’ve been proactive about it, obviously.”

The fact is, when human beings are prone to procrastinate, it is because it surprisingly often works. I literally cannot count the number of problems I have solved by the simple action of ignoring them completely. Some problems solve themselves, given time. Other problems turn out not to be problems after all. And even real and persistent problems will sometimes get fixed by a person with a lower tolerance for impending doom.

Also, procrastination has a wonderful ability to make all of your other, slightly less unpleasant tasks seem positively rewarding in comparison. Would the desks of your employees ever get cleaned if it wasn’t for that nasty report they are trying to avoid getting started on? Mine wouldn’t. In fact, I’m normally quite productive when I am procrastinating, this post being a good example.

So, when to procrastinate, and when to be proactive? A general rule is that you should be proactive about an issue only when the cost of the proactive measures is lower than the cost of dealing with the problem later, timed by the probability that the problem will actually occur. Say, if you have a 50 percent chance of having to do a 10,000 dollar repair operation, you should be proactive about it only if the cost of being proactive is lower than 5,000 dollars. That way, you will tend to win out in the long run.

Of course, this rule works only when you can reliably estimate both the costs and the probabilities involved – and when there is a long run, i.e. when the issues that are on the line are not life-threateningly big for your company. If it is a one-off situation where a bad outcome will destroy your company, it may make sense to err on the side of caution, if nothing else than to atttain peace of mind.

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