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I have thought a bit about procrastination. My conclusion is that I believe there are evolutionary reasons for this phenomenon. My thinking is that a small society will be more efficient if the people there procrastinate if they are set to do a task for which they are poorly qualified or unmotivated. This means that others, who are more motivated or better qualified will do the task instead and the person who procrastinated, will do things which he/she will be more efficient at.

Does this thinking make sense? Using this line of thought, should embrace procrastination in certain circumstances?

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I'll get back to you on that ;-) – Brian Carlton Sep 12 '11 at 16:54
Please upvote the answer from @eflat. It is excellent, but I like the one from Vic slightly more. – David Feb 3 '12 at 10:36
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Two words: Structured Procrastination

It will change your life.

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I think it was Fiore in "The Now Habit" that talked about so-called "positive" effects that end up reinforcing procrastination. This could be something like procrastinating on purchasing new tires for your car, and when you finally do get around to getting them they are on sale. The reward is that you saved money, but you've possibly put yourself and others in danger. Unfortunately, the reward has made it more likely that you'll procrastinate in the future.

Another "positive" effect is relieving you from making decisions. Say you get a flyer for an interesting looking event. You kinda/maybe/sorta wanna go. Do you go or not? Set the flyer aside to "think about later" and eventually the date will have passed and there's no longer any need for you to be decisive.

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Welcome to the site! This is an excellent answer! Thanks! – David Feb 3 '12 at 10:36

Motivated != Qualified.

The set of people who have motivation to do a certain task is typically only mild (at best) correlated to those who are most competent at a task.

Thus, the person who is most likely to procrastinate is actually likely also the most qualified. This person will confidence in his/her's abilities and we feel as though there is little need to fulfill the task at once.

Therefore, procrastination does nothing to help a small society because those who start a task early are likely to be those who are less efficient at it.

Thus, it makes much more sense to embrace time management rather than procrastination. Procrastination with a lack of time management skills and general organization are what get people into trouble.

Beneficial Procrastination

Now, there is beneficial procastination. This is procastination that is established because the task would be done more efficiently if the task is delayed.
- A silly example would be the case where perhaps a person has been assigned a task to mow a lawn. They decide to wait until their new mower comes in, which will allow them to do the job in half the time.
- Or perhaps, a person waits for there to be so much work done, so that this work can be done in batches. ie. I will wait to go to the post office to mail this package, because there is a second package that will require shipment in a few days.
- I deal with situations at work where it could take 1/5th of the time to do a task if it's done before or after some event. Obviously, we take advantage of this as much as possible.

Why does (bad) procrastination exist?

I think that (bad) procrastination (caused by lack of motivation) is a byproduct of the "interesting" phenomenon.
If someone is interested in particular thing they, by definition, must be less interested in other things.

I would argue that this passion for a particular thing is very beneficial as this is what drives people to accomplish great things. And surely, what is life without our passions?

However, this good things has the byproduct of a negative thing.
This is the case where we are "undriven" to do things we're not passionate in.

Lastly, why the hell did I write all this? Because I am procrastinating my other work and for some reason felt more interested in writing a response. Hrmmmmmm.

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Interesting answer! You're definitely right about the "Motivated != Qualified" part, but I don't think a LACK of correlation can be taken to mean that "the person who is most likely to procrastinate is actually likely also the most qualified". There are many factors leading to procrastination, and they vary with personality - so people who feel absolutely incompetent at something are also very likely to procrastinate, and some people like to knock out easy tasks first and wouldn't procrastinate on the thing they were most qualified for. – weronika Oct 16 '11 at 8:33
When you have good reasons to postpone, I wouldn't call it procrastination at all, even if 'beneficial' is used. It's simply planning and scheduling for best work distribution and efficiency, putting tasks off to be triggered by other prior tasks/events. – Vic Goldfeld Feb 11 '12 at 18:27

I'm not sure whether you're asking about team management strategies here or just wondering about evolutionary issues... So I'll just see what I can come up with on the topic in general.

Yes, it seems pretty likely that some degree of procrastination makes evolutionary sense. People didn't really evolve to be efficient, they evolved to be social and adaptive and not spend most of their time working under most circumstances (if under "normal" conditions you have to spend most of your time working in order to have enough food etc, under unusually bad conditions you probably won't be able to survive at all, and conditions in nature vary).

To what extent that reasoning applies to our personal productivity, motivation, and happiness, is another question, and I'm having trouble coming up with situations in which procrastination is the best answer to a problem. Except as a warning mechanism to notice and deal with - if you see yourself procrastinating on something, rethink your options: talk to your boss/coworkers about whether someone else could do the task or whether it's necessary at all, rethink the plan for the task because maybe it really doesn't make much sense the way it's currently written, figure out if you just need to take a break and de-stress before getting started, etc. In any case, don't just procrastinate - do something.

The one case in which I personally do find procrastination useful, mostly at home instead of at work, is that I tend to procrastinate by doing other tasks, not completely lazy. Yesterday, for instance, I was procrastinating on cleaning the bathroom, and ended up clearing my desk and re-organizing my filing cabinet instead - and then ended up cleaning the bathroom anyway.

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A good skeptics can be a very productive help/factor in a team, a bad skeptics may be a nerving brakeman :)

But the first answers on SE are not allways the best. This is of course the exception of the rule :D

There is Project Managment SE, maybe there are some hints how to structure teams and team work. This site is afaik more about personal improvement

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Somewhat related -- I wrote a blog post about exactly this that got passed around a lot a few years ago:

Are you procrastinating? Or are you just thinking?

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Dou you really want these kind of people in your team? I don't think so. In a team, every member must know their responsibility. No one are equals. But, giving task of poorly qualified or unmotivated persons to more motivated or better qualified, is a bad idea for both side.

I know this is an easy solution. But In future, this situation can create serious consequence for your team. Instead of, ask yourself these questions;

  • How can I improve my team members motivation ?
  • How can I made my team members more qualified ?
  • This procrastination situation is temporary or not ?
  • How can I prevent effective members from this procrastination situation ?
  • Should I stop to work with these people ?

These are sounds like being cruel but also which they are needs to be done.

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