Is procrastination good? I have been a chronic procrastinator; and a religious one at that. From childhood, I have heard how procrastination is a thief of time, killer of dreams, and destroyer of opportunities. While agreeing that this generally held view is not entirely without merit, life has shown me another, less explored, side of truth as well. It is these benefits of procrastination that I have seen from experience that I want to share in this post. Hopefully, it will enable us to come up with a more balanced answer to the question that we started off with.
An interesting piece of advice that I have got against putting off work that needs to be done is in the form of a doha (couplet) from Kabir
काल करे सो आज कर, आज करे सो अब ।
पल में प्रलय होएगी,बहुरि करेगा कब ॥
What is to be done tomorrow, do today. What is to be done today, do now. For if in the next moment the world were to end, then when will you do?
To analyze this argument, let’s say I delay ironing my shirt till the minute before I have to wear it to a party tomorrow. What if the world comes to an end before that? Well, then there would be no need for that shirt and I will have saved the time that I would have been wasted on ironing a shirt that was never to be worn.
The same logic applies to seemingly more important tasks like working on a document that needs to be sent out in a week or writing code that needs to be delivered in a month. Those who are in the habit of anticipating future work and completing them earlier than required end up doing a lot of work, much of which is never used.
Does that mean a great seer like Kabir can be giving us wrong advice? Definitely not. The problem lies in an incorrect understanding of his message. There is no way that someone like Kabir can be asking us to work on worldly tasks with a sense of urgency.
There is a saying in Malayalam that the washerman who plans to go to Kashi after finishing the laundry will never go. As soon as he washes some, more get added to his queue. It is to such people who put off their primary duty because they are so preoccupied with the mundane that Kabir gives his advice. Before they know, this life will be over, and they will not have done that one thing that matters. To apply that advice to worthless tasks that the world already pursues with zeal is to go directly against the spirit of Kabir’s words.
Thus, the first benefit of procrastination is to prevent wasted effort on activities that can prove to be unnecessary.
The second benefit is avoiding rework. In many cases, the details of work evolve over time, and you get full clarity only as you approach the deadline. Any effort you spend early on might be in the wrong direction and will require rework. If we wait till we have very good clarity on the ask, then the overall effort spent will likely be much less.
In addition to avoiding rework and reducing effort, the quality of output is also usually higher when work is done with full information than when it is designed for one set of requirements and then adapted to another with significant changes. Again, it is easy to appreciate how procrastination can lead to better results than jumping the gun.
Now, let us assume that the work is required, and you also have sufficient information to proceed. It is often the case that you need support from other parties to complete your work. If you start early, the others involved will be unlikely to share your sense of urgency. This can make getting timely support difficult and you will have to spend a lot of time chasing them. If you are doing something after it has become urgent, by then it will have become a priority for the other involved as well. This can help in getting a quicker turnaround for the task.
As we conclude this discussion, you might be wondering why not much is written on the benefits of procrastination if it is indeed such a powerful tool for improving efficiency and quality. The only reason I can think of is that those who truly know these benefits might have put off writing about them like I have been doing all this time!