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Nine Habits of Successful Procrastinators

October 13, 2014

Speaking of hypocrisy, as I did in my last post on internet trolls, I have a further confession to make. Despite running regular workshops in which I urge participants to avoid the sin of procrastination, I am a master of the art of putting off until tomorrow what I could do today. In fact I revel in it.

I was reminded of my apparent character weakness by this article on the BBC website. It examines the pros and cons of procrastination, and describes the anti-procrastination tactics of historic figures, including Victor Hugo, who was in the habit of removing his clothes and having his butler hide them, so that he couldn’t leave the house – presumably until he’d written his few thousand words for the day.

My career as a world-class procrastinator began at school. I would do everything possible to avoid handing in assignments until a minute before the deadline. My exam revision consisted of fourteen hours before each exam spread over the eighteen immediately preceding the exam, punctuated by four hours sleep. It worked for me, and for my elder daughter, who arrived at the same techniques as me and used it to get a decent degree from a well-regarded university.

Since then, and throughout my business career, I have been incapable of finishing anything early. I’m energised for the task only when the deadline rears over me like an approaching tsunami. I’ve usually regarded deadlines as boring necessities of life which prevent me from doing what’s really interesting and important. Yet I hardly ever miss them, driven as I tend to be by self-interest, social obligation and a desire not to let others down.

So from the pen of a master, here’s a little guide to procrastination without tears:

Forget about the urgent/important matrix: there’s a hoary old model popularised by Steven Covey in his zillion-selling book, Seven Habits of Effective People. It’s called Covey’s Four Quadrants, and it’s beloved of those who preach the gospel of time management. It states that we should categorise all tasks in front of us into combinations of four conditions: Urgent, Important, Not Urgent and Not Important. So stopping the world from imminent nuclear meltdown might be considered Urgent and Important. Checking your Facebook page to look at comments on the picture of a two-headed cat you posted a few minutes ago may well rate as Not Urgent and Not Important. The fatal flaw is that the model doesn’t define in whose terms something might be considered urgent or important: yours or someone else’s? Sticking a chicken in the oven might be considered urgent and important by your family. But if you really don’t care that the sacred deadline of 7.30 for dinner might be overrun by an hour, it’s neither urgent nor important for you, except as a means of avoiding universal opprobrium within your family.

So forget it. You don’t need Covey to help you analyse each task and act accordingly. Unless you’re thoroughly stupid, you know what you have to do to avoid divorce or instant termination of employment. Use your common sense. If you must have four quadrants, I suggest you use Fun, Useful, Not Fun and Not Useful – a far more faithful reflection of human nature than Covey’s mechanistic creation.

Practice selective procrastination: by which I mean there are some things you can sit on, and some you can’t. Take lottery tickets for example. I’m entirely indifferent to the lottery, but my wife is a believer. So occasionally I’m sent up to the shop to buy the ticket that will surely turn us into multi-millionaires. For her, one lottery draw missed is a fortune lost. For me, no big deal, there’ll always be another one on Saturday. However, in the unlikely event of our numbers propelling us into the national rich list, it doesn’t make sense to wait until the last moment before cashing in. I would prefer the moment before the last moment. This way my wife would have time to divorce me and spend the millions, and I would have time to prepare myself for life in a monastery.

So, following on from the previous rule, selective procrastination is all about having a well-developed sense of what you can and can’t delay. As long as you’ve worked out what the really impactful consequences will be, you can afford procrastinate away with impunity.

Rejoice in serendipity: one of the joys of my life is being diverted. The internet is an endless labyrinth of accidental knowledge. No alley is blind, because it leads you somewhere else. The same goes for sitting around doing nothing. If you’re so minded, you can see, hear, feel and think things that you would otherwise screen out in getting-on-with-it mode. I learned this a long time ago when I had what some people would consider one of the most boring jobs in the world: sitting in front of a machine that put chocolates in bags. The machine never broke down, but my job was to be there when it did. I spent several weeks of my college summer vacation on 12 hour-shifts, with nothing to distract me other than what was going on in my head. When I had exhausted one subject, I had to think of something else to think about, and so on until it was time to say goodnight to the infernal machine. I much of the time in a kind of dream state. I created new political systems, plots for novels, compound nouns and more efficient bagging machines. I thought of what questions I might ask of famous historical figures, of novel opening lines to try out on girls I fancied at parties. I created recipes, TV game shows and goodness knows what else. And promptly forgot most of what I’d thought about at the end of the shift, leaving a few ideas as delicious cud to chew again on the next shift.

I discovered that there was nothing like sitting in front of a bagging machine for experiencing the delights of lateral thinking, even though Edward De Bono hadn’t invented it yet. Serendipity is the enemy of efficient time management, yet it’s the friend of the brain. Never be afraid to stop, look around and think. The chances are that you’ll discover things that are far more useful than the output of the dedicated one-track-minds around you.

Team up with a non-procrastinator: if, like me, you have a partner in love or work for whom procrastination is a deadly enemy, then you are blessed. Because you can get on with doing what you enjoy – procrastinating – safe in the knowledge that your partner is taking care of stuff that they love doing – finishing things off, doing things on time and kicking you up the backside when there’s something seriously useful to be achieved. I’m not talking about delegation here. It’s easy to pass down the chain of command all the dirty stuff you couldn’t be bothered to do on some unfortunate who is no more enthusiastic about the task than you. We’re talking about teamwork, mutual interest and happy cooperation, not the exercise of power to make your life easier.

I’m married to someone who loves paying the bills on time, who delights in beating mobile phone companies and insurers over the head to get a better deal. A self-confessed credit card tart who changes our cards so often that I sometimes have to ask her which card I can use on which particular day. A fanatical collector of air miles who enables us to travel like Joan Collins (not that she would deign to step on to a Ryanair aircraft as we do occasionally). When she’s in scourge mode, I call her Vlad, after the Impaler of that name. In short, she does all the stuff I hate doing, which leaves me with the time to do what I enjoy doing. A near-perfect partnership, even if I do have to hide under the table to escape her wrath at my dilatory behaviour from time to time. Find that relationship at home or work, and you can procrastinate to your heart’s content.

Celebrate your ability to do the impossible: one of the particular talents of successful procrastinators is the ability to perform miracles. The fourteen-hour last-moment revision technique I referred to earlier is one example. The ability of a 10-stone weakling to lift a car single-handedly off a person who finds himself crushed underneath it is another. People who leave things impossibly late and yet pull off some spectacular last minute stunt are harnessing powers that stitch-in-time merchants never realise they have.

Armed with the knowledge of what you can achieve when you really need to gives you great confidence. Making a habit of exceptional effort can be counter-productive, because then people expect miracles from you all the time. But knowing that you can put your foot on the gas when required is rather like being a judo black belt. Your skills may never be needed in a critical situation, but you gain an inner confidence from knowing that they’re within you and can be deployed if necessary. I once caused my father to burst into censorious laughter at my complacency when, after surviving yet another last-minute crisis, I commented “imagine what I could achieve if I put this kind of effort in all the time”. But what I didn’t say, and should have, was “but think of all the stuff I would miss out on by working hard all the time”.

Don’t be defined by the expectations of others: this gets easier the older you get. When we’re  young, most of us are anxious to fit in, don’t want to be seen to stand out (unless we’re in a business where you’re dead if you fail to stand out – like acting and music). You get on with your job, hope your talents are noticed and take discreet measures to make sure of it. But unless you run your own business, or are so ridiculously wealthy that you don’t need to “work” for a living, you are to a greater or lesser extent at the mercy of other peoples’ expectations, particularly in terms of what you do and when you do it. Even deadlines you set for yourself are framed within larger imperatives over which you have no control. You are not only a wage slave. You are also a time slave.

However there are strategies you can use to win back control of your time, and allow yourself to get away with a fair bit of creative procrastination. For example you can negotiate. Gone are the days when Oliver Twist brought the workhouse down when he asked for more. If you question deadlines you not only have a chance of redefining the commitment, but you might also win the reputation of being someone who doesn’t accept everything at face value. On the other hand, you may be perceived as a pain in the backside, but that’s perhaps a risk worth taking.

You can also try the Doctrine of Tactical Ignorance. This works on the principle that if you ignore a request long enough it may go away, revealing itself to have been unnecessary in the first place. I once knew a middle manager at IBM who turned the company’s clean desk policy to his advantage. He binned virtually every piece of paper that arrived on his desk. He worked on the basis that if something was sufficiently important to someone else, they would chase him up. No chase-up, no action. This happens often in Saudi Arabia, one of the countries I visit regularly. The Saudis have an additional gambit when faced with something important that they want to duck. They form a committee to consider it. By the time the committee has finished its deliberation – maybe in a year or two – the subject is no longer relevant. The committee gambit has the additional advantage of satisfying their love of social interaction – and the Saudis are very sociable people.

Re-visit your attitude towards time: “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date”, said the White Rabbit. My wife and I share a love of movies, concerts and theatre. Oddly enough, given my tendency to procrastinate and her fanatical adherence to deadlines that relate to family business, we are the opposite when it comes to making it on time to events. I can’t stand missing the start of the movie or a concert, and I’m prepared to sit through endless commercials, or leave home 30 minutes earlier than is strictly necessary to make sure I’m settled in my seat, ice cream or programme in hand, ready for the start. She, on the other hand, is quite happy to pitch up 5 minutes late and squirm past disapproving occupants of nearby seats. Are our brains wired differently? Perhaps. For her a movie or a concert is like boating on a river – you join it at one point, leave at another, and enjoy the view on the way. For me though, there’s a start, a middle and an end, and missing the start compromises the whole experience.

But when it comes to things she didn’t do when she had the time, she is sometimes consumed with regret. “Why didn’t I do this, and why didn’t I think of that?” To which I reply (even though I know a reply is neither requested nor desired): “because you didn’t. So put it down to experience and learn from it what you can.”

The lesson from all this? Think of how you perceive time. If you see it as a non-rechargeable battery, you might end up a sad procrastinator, forever regretting squandering the power that can never be regained. Or you could be a happy procrastinator, delighting in the meadows, the wildlife and the pubs as your boat cruises down the river of life.

Re-visit your purpose – constantly: when I was 12, I wanted to be Prime Minister – for about five minutes. Later on, I wanted to play cricket for England, until I discovered how inept I was at at putting bat to ball. Then I was going to be a lawyer, then a rich and successful concert promoter. As time went on one specific goal gave way to another. I achieved some, not others. Once achieved, the view from the mountain-top was spectacular for five minutes, then common-place. Time for a new mountain to climb, then.

The older I became, the more modest the goals I set myself. It wasn’t that I didn’t get a kick out of achieving them. But over a few decades I slowly came to realise that what was really important was not what I achieved, but what sort of person was doing the achieving. Would I kill to achieve? Was it OK that my advantage would result in someone else’s disadvantage? If I’d stuck to my goal of becoming Prime Minister, I might have got there – a slim chance admittedly. But at what cost? Would I have turned into a Francis Urqhuart, effortlessly plunging the knife into opponents who got in the way? I suspect there are many people who have reached their mountain top, only to find that they were looking out over valleys of sewage.

The master procrastinator may only reach the foothills, but the willingness to stop, ponder and do nothing for a while, rather than press on working towards a goal that no longer has a meaning other than the fact that long ago you set out to achieve it could be the difference between a life of illusory success and the ability to sleep well at night. I know which I value more highly.

In the end, you will be forgiven for the deadlines you missed: well, there are exceptions to that statement. Hitler, who held back Guderian’s tanks at Dunkirk; Nero, who fiddled while Rome burned (or didn’t, depending on who you believe); perhaps even Barack Obama, who conveniently forgot the red line he drew in Syria and sat hesitating as ISIS rampaged all over Iraq. But by and large, master procrastinators know that they will be forgiven for all the times when they sat on their hands. They will be remembered for what they did achieve, and what sort of person they became in getting there. So while they might apologise for keeping people waiting, they don’t really mean it, because they know that things will turn out OK in the end.

I rest my case with the career of Quintus Fabius Maximus, known to history as Fabius Cunctator (Fabius the Delayer).

Fabius is credited with saving Rome from final defeat by the invading Carthaginian general, Hannibal. Twice, after other generals had led the Roman forces to catastrophic defeats at the battles of Lake Trasimene and Cannae, he picked up the pieces and kept Hannibal at bay, refusing pitched battles but mounting a very effective war of attrition. For his pains he received the insulting nickname of Cunctator from his critics in Rome. But thanks to his strategy of starving Hannibal of his supply lines and depleting the invading army with a series of small guerrilla attacks, Fabius eventually forced the Carthaginian to leave Italy. Without the efforts of this supreme procrastinator, it’s fair to say that that there would have been no Roman Empire and no western civilisation as we know it.

So when it comes to the great debate on procrastination, I will always come down on the side of the procrastinators. At some stage. When I get round to it. When I can be bothered.

From → Business, Social, UK

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