It used to be standard shtick in newspapers to, once a year or so, report on the antics of the Procrastinators’ Club of America. I don’t recall the exact jokes, but the gist would be something like a 1978 article announcing the imminent 1964 meeting of the club. That sort of humor would be considered too stodgy and gray-suited for today’s tastes. But, back in the day, we got a chuckle out of it. It was deadpan and self-effacing. After all, who among us hasn’t procrastinated?
As for the Procrastinator’s Club of America, it was founded in 1956 by Lester Morton “Les” Waas, a Philadelphia native who passed away in 2016 at the age of 94. Waas served as an Army Air Corps pilot in WWII and he operated in the Pacific theater. I don’t know if his duty ever brought him to Saipan, but it’s fun to imagine that it did; after all, Saipan isn’t exactly immune to the art and science of procrastination. After the war Waas returned to civilian life and started an advertising agency.
Anyway, back to procrastination. It’s more than fodder for office humor. It is, apparently, a topic that’s getting a lot of attention. I took a glance at book listings. I tallied over two dozen titles about how to overcome procrastination. Most were in the ever-fertile self-help niche of the U.S. market. Well, at least the writers aren’t procrastinating. They’re really cranking out the pages.
The established wisdom is that procrastination is a bad practice because it leaves things undone. That makes sense to me, at least in many cases. But there are other views on the matter, and they also make sense to me.
Nassim Taleb, for example, devotes three pages to the topic in his book Antifragile. The big idea here is that heeding the impulse to “do something” can actually be counter-productive because it can interfere with nature’s workings.
“Few understand,” writes Taleb, “that procrastination is our natural defense, letting things take care of themselves.”
So, to draw from an example in the book, if you have a backache, it may be wiser to give it a chance to heal itself than to have back surgery right away. There are times when non-action is more prudent than action, especially when non-action avoids risks that action entails. (Let’s keep in mind this was a hypothetical example offered as philosophical food for thought; it wasn’t designed to diagnose anyone’s medical condition.)
Furthermore, there are situations in life where pangs to procrastinate are symptoms to be heeded instead of obstacles to be smashed.
“Since procrastination is a message from our natural willpower via low motivation,” writes Taleb, “the cure is changing the environment, or one’s profession, by selecting one in which one does not have to fight one’s impulses.”
I’m sure on board with that. Big time. I’ve been lucky enough to do work that I enjoy doing, but over the years I’ve seen a lot of people trying to force themselves to be productive in contexts that aren’t a good fit with them.
Taleb’s overall take is consistent with some of the ancient Chinese wisdom, and, in fact, he mentions the sage Lao Tzu and his doctrine of wu wei, which Taleb defines as “passive achievement.” You could also define it more literally, but less meaningfully, as “without action,” but no matter how we split those hairs, the point I’ll make is that it’s not about haphazard idleness, but, is, instead, about cultivating an awareness that doesn’t put our actions at odds with nature’s forces.
Saipan offers a great example of this notion. Swimming is part of the island lifestyle. The most basic, and important, part of swimming is floating. Floating is an exercise in wu wei. A good swimmer floats with nary a movement. It’s the non-swimmers who splash around and exert themselves.
Well, since we’ve covered the Procrastinators’ Club, Les Waas, Nassim Taleb, and even Lao Tzu here, I’m going to close things out by offering one of my thoughts in the management realm:
In the management realm, if you find that otherwise responsible workers are struggling with procrastination, it’s likely a cue for you to redesign the work flow, including procedures and training materials, so that things can get done more smoothly and present less of a headache to the workers. Procrastination is a red flag. We can use that flag to everyone’s advantage if we heed it instead of trying to steamroller over people while ignoring how they feel about things.