Comments on procrastination

My friend Mikael Pawlo has written about procrastination. I read his post while travelling and only quickly answered him on Twitter that I had some comments. Instead of sending them only to him I decided to post them.

Mikael's post is good and probably holds up to the realities of many people. However, it doesn't fit how I view my own life. Now, am I just defensive and refuse to accept that I'm an unproductive person? Or could there be circumstances where Mikael's views don't hold? 

I have two arguments that I'll try to lay out and then try to put them into a broader view. Please join in if you have additional comments, questions or perspectives on this interesting topic.


1. Context

I believe procrastination must be seen in it's context, more specifically be mirrored in the type of work you do. What is procrastination in one type of job might not be in another. If one follows the line of thought created by Elliott Jaques in Requisite Organization two things can be said. A) There are different 'levels' of work in an organization which require different cognitive capabilities. B) Employees should not be blamed for their inefficiencies, the focus should lie on fixing the system that they work in.

So, with these perspectives applied to my own work I could easily say that what others would perceive as procrastinating is actually part of my work. I'm involved in long term development projects that emerge and evolve as the process moves forward. Obviously outcomes and targets are defined at the offset, but typically these are redefined several times as a result of new discoveries and insights along the way. The quality of the project relies largely on being adaptive as it is always set in a social environment. When being overly "productive", in the sense of tightly managing it, projects I'm involved in typically fail or produce results under par. By keeping some distance, maintaining an open mindset, idling, exploring and testing – the project gets the input it needs to be relevant to it's context.

If I do find myself unproductive (which happens) with regard to my work, I don't see lack of effort or discipline as the problem. It is the "system" I work in that needs improving. So instead of putting guilt on myself for not producing I try to work on changing the framework for my work. This almost always creates improvements that directly increases productivity. Why? Because I'm taking charge of my context instead of being a slave under my to-do-list.

With all this said there is still loads of stuff I never get done – or get done half-heartedly. At this time in life I trust my work process so well that I can safely say these are things that are less important for me. I can without guilt watch as things get postponed for eternity or simply pass their due without action. Not doing stuff is also life, which brings me to my next argument.


2. Culture

We have a culture that hails growth and productivity. I have to confess I'm very troubled by this culture. Sure, I see what it produces for us, but I also increasingly see the downside of this culture. One of them being the increasing loss of humanistic values and ecological resources over productive concerns. In my humble opinion we are using this culture as "alibi" to force ourselves onto nature and ignore basic human needs. This cannot end well if we do not dismantle this culture.

Demonizing procrastination is a very strong expression of this culture of ours. Everyone has to be productive and useful. Shame on those that aren't. I find this very hard to swallow as a general cultural theme. A more useful approach is viewing procrastination as an integrated part of human behavior. We have to be pals with this behavior, just as with many other behaviors we have. We aren't perfect. And can't be. Tyson Gay doesn't run perfect races every time. No one does.

I prefer a more Taoistic approach to getting things done. What gets done gets done. If things don't get done there is probably a good reason. Instead of forcing us to do the task we should examine what is stopping us. Perhaps the task at hand is completely and utterly meaningless. Perhaps it is counter to our values. Perhaps is creates more damage than we care to realize. Whatever the reason, it should be examined. Now, this I know happens all too seldom. Instead we either force ourselves to do the task or ignore the task without examining it. I'd say the latter is the lesser of evils, but neither are good because no learning is created. 

I'm all for not doing tasks if I've examined the reasons why and then consciously put them aside. In fact, I would in the spirit of Jim Collins' work recommend creating a not-to-do-list. My experience is that such a list reduces guilt and increases productivity in what matters. Lots of stuff that we think are important and urgent don't really matter much. 

If we are to get things done in a more sustainable manner we have to work in flow with the universe, not against it. The universe will bite back if we don't work with it. Sometimes at once, sometimes with delayed retaliation. If we're not open to the feedback we get from the universe and learn from it, we'll just be repeating mistakes. I know this sounds fluffy for a mind "programmed" by our culture, but this is my chosen truth and it works for me. I prefer not doing the wrong stuff than forcing myself on the universe. 


So where does this leave us?

If I were to expand my arguments to an existing organization I would argue that unproductive (procrastinating) behavior at employee level is more of a management related problem than an employee related problem. If you have people in the wrong place or with wrong capabilities, that is your problem as a manager. You hired them. You can move them. Furthermore, if you have roughly the right people but the wrong (or too little) things come out, you still own the problem. It is either your managing that needs improvement or the work itself that needs changing. Or the organizational systems and structure that needs changing. I dare say it is pointless to blame employees for procrastinating. Chances are employees are procrastinating because you are ;)

If you are an employee and have reached the insight that you are procrastinating too much I hope you can find comfort in that you are not to be blamed. Still, I would argue that you have a responsibility toward yourself to change your situation. Nobody wants to be in a more or less permanent state of meaningless activity. So, instead of producing more lists and taking more self-help courses, do what is right. Make sure you work in a context that gets you fired up and makes you productive out of inspiration and meaning. If that means changing jobs or kicking you boss's ass, that is what you have to to do. If you don't think you have the luxury of doing this, I urge you to reconsider. I'm not saying it will be easy, but I do say you have an alternative to the status quo.