Analyze Why You Procrastinate

I generally don’t procrastinate― in fact, I often do things too early and end up reworking a bit when circumstances change. But when I do procrastinate, I become very frustrated with myself for letting something go that could have been done earlier under less time pressure. So why do we procrastinate? I have analyzed my delays and usually find when I dread doing a task (like paying bills or preparing taxes), I procrastinate. People also procrastinate when they are unsure about how to do a particular task. It is okay to procrastinate as long as you know why you delaying and have performed risk analysis.

What Is the Procrastination Penalty?

What is wrong with procrastinating? Procrastinating results in a “procrastination penalty.” Often, waiting until the last minute to finish a task causes stress, and possibly, a financial cost. For example, if I wait until the week before a trip to purchase a plane ticket the price may be higher. It is easy to see that my delay cost me money. Or I may not be able to get a seat on the ideal flight, so my procrastination has caused me inconvenience and maybe some lost time at home or on vacation.

Sometimes there is a reward for procrastinating but this reward must be weighed against the penalty. If I don’t complete my weekly status report until the very last minute on Friday afternoon, I will have more progress to report so my report will look better. Of course, I risk having to stay late at work because my status report takes longer than I expected, or my internet connection goes down before I can submit the report.

Since often there is some type of penalty for procrastinating, it is worth thinking about that penalty and whether or not you are willing to pay it. For example, if you wait to start or complete a project until the day before it is due, the penalty is that you will be forced to do it all on in one day and you may have to work overtime to get it done. How much is your free time worth? Another penalty is that you may miss an opportunity. Let’s say you have a project due on Friday morning. On Wednesday night, a friend calls with free tickets to your favorite sporting event on Thursday that you have to turn down because you must complete your project. You have paid a big penalty for waiting until the last minute.

Why Do You Procrastinate?

I want to challenge you to think deeply about why you put things off until the last possible, or impossible, minute. Understanding why and when you procrastinate requires great self-awareness. You need to be aware when you are procrastinating― then stop and ask yourself why. Deciding how long you can wait before you start a task also involves risk analysis. If the potential penalty for delay is not too high you will take the risk of waiting, but if the penalty is significant you may force yourself to get it done early. For example, if you have been asked to create a presentation for your organization’s next board meeting, turning in a slide deck with typos and grammatical errors could hold a huge penalty (loss of your job). This task is one that you want to start early and make sure you have time for others to review it and give you feedback.

Is Procrastination Ever Beneficial?

Yes! As someone who usually gets things done long before they are due, I can tell you there are sometimes drawbacks for being ahead of schedule. If I have a presentation due in two months and I start working on it now, I’ll probably spend more hours revising it because I might look at every week for two months. If I wait and start it within a month of its due date, I’ll be forced to get it done in a month and won’t have as much time to revise. This is timeboxing and it is an effective way to set and achieve goals.

Sometimes you use another task as an excuse to procrastinate on the first. I am procrastinating right now on several longer articles and a new book I am writing, by writing this blog post. Blog posts are quicker and easier to write, and can be finished and “published” (posted) within hours. It is rewarding to finish a project so smaller ones can be more appealing and my procrastination has resulted in this post!

Last Responsible Moment (LRM)

One concept of the agile mindset is “last responsible moment.” This means that it is sometimes wise to wait and not get too far ahead on a project. Things change daily so you might wait until you are sure about the need. For example, if I buy a plane ticket for an upcoming conference as soon as it is scheduled, I may have to change it later, resulting in an airline change fee. The last responsible moment is when the fare is likely to be lowest and my schedule is likely to be firm. Unfortunately, choosing the LRM is not easy or scientific. Waiting too long―procrastinating― is irresponsible because there may not be any seats left on the flights or the ticket price may be very high if purchased at the last minute.  Currently, there are great debates in the agile world about whether this concept (also known as “defer commitments”) is a good recommendation or not.

Procrastinate on Purpose

My recommendation is that if you are going to procrastinate, do it on purpose. Decide that you are going to procrastinate rather than just letting it happen. Make a conscientious decision by considering the risks and penalties. Ask yourself:

  1. When is it due? Is the due date firm or will it possibly move?
  2. What is the procrastination penalty? How risky is procrastination?
  3. If you finish the work early, will you be able to relax and forget about it? (This is a significant benefit for many people).
  4. If you start early, will you spend too much time on the task?

When you analyze your behavior you are more likely to make a better decision. Deciding when to start and finish a task is responsible planning, even if you plan to procrastinate! So what are you waiting for?!