• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

Procrastination, Good and Bad

When to wait and when to act.

February 27, 2018
 
 

Someone emailed me this week with a question about procrastination in administrative roles. It got me thinking.

From what I've read, written, and lived, I see several different forms of procrastination (granting upfront that there may be more):

  • The "I don't want to deal with this problem" kind. This is completely unproductive, and often makes things worse. The experience of failure actually helps with this, though; once you've face-planted a couple of times and still lived to tell the tale,you realize that "the worst that can happen" may not be so bad.  At that point, you might as well just rip off the band-aid and be done with it.  
  • The "my brain needs to process this" kind. This requires a certain confidence, self-awareness, and the ability to reflect. Occasionally, when things are coming at me way too quickly, I make a conscious decision to put something aside for a day or several in order to let the cognitive dust settle.  Sometimes a breakthrough comes when I'm walking the dog or folding towels.  Leaving space for that to happen can be useful, if that's actually what's happening. Be aware, though, that to external observers, what you perceive as “letting the dust settle” may resemble “not doing a damn thing.”  With time-sensitive issues, there’s no guarantee that the breakthrough will meet the deadline, either.
  • The "program already in progress" kind. Some problems take care of themselves, if given the chance. I've even seen this in conversations, when someone comes in complaining, then gradually solves the complaint for herself while speaking.  Alternately, sometimes a course of action depends on something external happening (or not) and there's not much to do about it until then.  As a former manager of mine once told me, "don't just do something; stand there!"  There are times when that works.  (This version an also be expressed negatively as the “maybe it will go away” kind.)
  • The "I forgot that I put that aside" kind. I'll admit having done this myself. Sometimes if a task falls low on the to-do list for a while, it sort of falls off.  It isn't so much procrastination as forgetfulness, but from the outside, they can look the same. The danger of this one is that it sneaks up on you. Holiday shopping often falls into this category.

I remember being awed, in my first days of administration, when I watched my boss keep his cool during somebody’s angry meltdown and respond to a pointed question with “let me get back to you on that.” In the heat of a moment, it can be difficult to see the more reasonable third alternative to a dilemma; buying time can sometimes allow for clearer perception and, ideally, a better answer.

The key difference between useful and destructive procrastination is strategy. Are you delaying out of a general sense of “I don’t wanna,” or is there reason to believe that delay will actually lead to a better result?  

The self-awareness piece is often the trickiest. Nobody is at her best all the time.  Knowing when you’re just not in a position to make a good decision takes some trial and error, but once you know your own “check engine” lights, they’re worth watching. When I can feel myself leaning towards a bad decision out of fatigue or spite, I’ve learned it’s best to step away and regain my bearings first.  The cost of a slight delay is far less than the cost of a stupid decision.

Even if you’re buying time for the right reasons, though, be aware that the rumor mill abhors a vacuum. It will fill the silence with alternative explanations, many of which will be far more salacious or malicious than the truth. Why people feel the need to do that isn’t entirely clear, but enough of them do that it isn’t surprising.  Choose those moments carefully.

Wise and worldly readers, have you found effective ways of getting around the bad kind of procrastination? Have you found other ways of using the good kind well?

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