Procrastination - Later is good


Procrastination has always been cliched to be an undesirable quality - one that no one strives for but easily acquires. I however would like to propose an unpopular alternative: prudent procrastination can improve productivity.

If you do it at the last minute, it only takes a minute.

Parkinson’s Law

The notion that work is a rigid entity which takes a constant proportion of time is somewhat misconceived. Work is fluid. [Parkinson’s law][1] states that work expands to take up any amount of time. The intuition is that, any work can expand to take up more time than is required.

Let’s say you want to pack for a trip. When you start in advance, you do it leisurely taking your time to choose clothing, shoes, accessories etc. You would probably spend an entire day or distributed over several days for the process. Now, you could have finished the entire process in an hour, but the lack of pressure to finish caused you to spend more time without realizing it. End of the day, you were done packing in advance. You were content with the sense of accomplishment forgetting the extra hours spent.

Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion – Cyril Northcote Parkinson

The problem with timetables

An obvious argument against this is, it can be avoided by allocating time for each task and sticking to a schedule. The vast majority of the population believes that schedules are the best way to be organized. However, it takes enormous amounts of discipline and restraint to stick to it. Probably you had a nice flow of ideas you do not want to interrupt by switching tasks. Or you indulged in a few extra hours of TV. Humans by nature, are susceptible to such vices.

As a college student I get bi-weekly assignments. Often times I observed that IF I start an assignment early in the first week, I spent several hours in the next week beautifying the output, formatting code etc, beyond what’s necessary. On the other hand, if I started the assignment on the day it’s due, I would be done with it in a span of 6-10 hours leading up to the submission.

Procrastination helps

In order to avoid this overflow of time you could enforce certain measures. There was a period of time when I used to work without my charger, so that I would be forced to finish before my laptop shutsdown. However, the most effective measure has been procrastination. When you have limited time left, you are forced to address issues by order of priority. There’s no confusion due to overwhelming options. It helps me focus extremely well and my best output has been under pressure. Just like how we could cram an entire subject the night before the exam or finish writing that report overnight.

Last minute panic - calvin and hobbes

Exercising caution

The key is to think of this idea as intelligently delaying or “scheduling” tasks to a time that appropriately constraints it. It’s important to be able to accurately judge the time required for completing the task or you run the risk of running short. Err on the side of caution and allot more hours/days if in doubt. It is also easy to go overboard and procrastinate everything causing complete disarray.

Personally, this technique has been very effective for me in balancing coursework, research and personal life. It helps me avoid getting bogged down by assignments and allows me to pursue other ideas. If you agree or disagree I would be interested in discussing your opinion. :)