The Cost of Procrastination

Published July 2015

Prior to starting my own consulting business, I worked for a small consulting firm. One of my responsibilities was helping to create the training tools which our team of consultants used with their clients.

Over time we decided to offer these tools in a virtual store. Our thought was that these tools would be attractive for do-it-yourself organizations that didnít want to use an external consultant. The internet also allowed us to sell to anyone in the English-speaking world, thereby extending our market boundaries beyond a couple of Midwest states where we had a physical presence.

As we worked on creating the website and populating it with exciting organizational learning tools, we had visions of arriving at work on future mornings to a backlog of orders from around the world waiting to be filled. We coined the phrase ďmaking money while we sleepĒ to describe this situation. It was an exciting time.

It just didnít work. Do-it-yourself organizations also wanted to create their own materials (they were do-it-yourselfers after all). There were several other websites offering similar products making it extremely difficult to differentiate ours. The mornings that we awoke to new orders were few and far between. Over time we recognized that the idea was a distraction to our core consulting business and the website was shut down.

Thereís another way to make money (albeit less direct) while sleeping Ö or driving Ö or walking Ö or any relaxing behavior. The secret is getting an early start on a challenging project or problem. By simply framing the issue at hand and then stepping away, we allow our brains to play with alternatives in the background.

For example, I typically choose the topic for my monthly column three weeks prior to the deadline. I invest a few minutes collecting a few key ideas around that topic, creating perhaps a very rough outline. Then I walk away.

During the course of the next week various new ideas pop up at unpredictable times and I add them to my outline. Writing the first draft of the column is typically painless and occurs two weeks prior to the deadline. Again I walk away, and comfortably make final revisions a couple of days before required.

Over the years Iíve noticed that seemingly unsolvable problems have multiple alternatives after a good nightís sleep. A stalled crossword puzzle practically solves itself after setting it aside for a couple of days. Perplexing client issues become much clearer following the drive home. (Unfortunately, I havenít found a tactful way of including this on an invoice.)

I suspect this phenomenon goes back to the physiology of the brain. When we allow ideas to percolate, it provides the opportunity for the prefrontal cortex Ė the creative, high horsepower portion of our brain Ė to go to work free of stress on the issue.

Procrastination robs one of this opportunity. It turns the problem into an emergency and triggers the primitive, survival-oriented portion of the brain to take over. (No wonder I canít recall Jimmy Carterís wifeís name as the buzzer is about to sound during a trivia contest.)

Providing time to ponder is especially important for creative activities (i.e., design and writing), problem solving and ambiguous direction-setting work such as strategic planning. Thatís one reason why itís a good idea to get off-site for strategic planning activities. Some organizations provide designated physical spaces for pondering.

Obviously, unforeseen emergencies can and do occur and require people that can think clearly under pressure. Procrastination creates avoidable emergencies.

So get an early start on your most important projects, if only to document what you currently know and donít know. Pinpoint the key sticking points and then let your mind go to work. Donít be afraid to daydream. Take a walk. Stare outside your window. If someone asks what youíre doing tell them, ďMaking money.Ē

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