Procrastination and C. Northcote Parkinson

I was sitting here thinking about what my next topic would be, but I kept putting off getting started. Maybe it was because I just didn’t feel the urgency of writing a new article yet. Some of the topics and articles seem to flow so easily that I begin to think that I might actually be getting the hang of this writing thing. Then others, like this one seem to require significant effort in order to perform their extraction and conversion into cogent thought. When that happens, I do the only logical thing. I procrastinate.

The fact that I was just sitting here trying to avoid writing something got me to thinking of the story of John Lennon when he was in the throes of writing the classic Beatles tune “Nowhere Man”: He said that he was “…lying there trying to write a song and was getting nowhere, man” and it hit him. The rest is musical genius and history. If I should ever be so fortunate as to possess one tenth the talent for writing that he had in his little finger, in my entire body I would count myself lucky. None the less it did give rise to my self examination of why I was having any sort of writers block.

Those of you that know me have often stated that usually I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut. You should be smiling at my difficulty at finding something, in this case the right thing to say.

What I did come up with is that C. Northcote Parkinson, the author of “Parkinson”s Law” was correct when he postulated:

         “Work expands to fill available time.”

The logical corollary, which I will modestly dub: “Gobeli’s Corollary” is:

“Procrastination reduces the perceived amount of work done by reducing available time for it to expand into.”

Think about it. I believe it explains a lot about who we are and why so many of the businesses, and for that matter so many of the political institutions that we have, operate the way they do. It is also probably at least partly responsible for the deadline mentality we seem to have evolved to. If you know that work will expand to fill all available time that it is given, the obvious solution to getting more work done is to provide a deadline that gives less time for each assignment to get done in.

I think we are also all familiar with the relationship between procrastination and “cramming”. We learned it early, probably in high school or college. Instead of spending a little time each day studying, we save it all for the last day or two before the exam. Why study every day when we can study really hard at the end and probably get the same result. We seem to have evolved this concept into our working structures now as well. We have even codified it as an accepted method of reducing the time required to compleat our projects. It’s called “Crashing”. We no longer work on our assignments ahead of time, or a little bit each day. Instead we wait till the deadline looms and then try to kick it directly into high gear.

We also see this type of work process with our current federal legislature. They are so good at procrastinating, and have recognized their own predilection for it, that they have had to create their own either artificial or real deadlines in order to get anything done. As a result we seem to be lurching from one crisis (read: deadline) to the next. This process does seem to keep the talking heads on the various news channels happy as they now have a continuous flow of issues to talk about, but is probably not the most efficient way to get things done.

I once worked a company where they had evolved a similar culture. They knew that they were excellent at managing in a crisis. The only problem was that they evolved to a point where everything had to be a crisis in order to get anything done. Being in a continual crisis mode does have a tendency to wear out the team. To think of it in sports terms, imagine a football team running their “Two Minute” offense for every play of every game for the entire season. It might work for a while, but the wear and tear on the team will eventually cause them to break down.

Gobeli’s Corollary would have us believe that by procrastinating, we would actually end up having to do less work. We seem to believe that doing two days of non-stop hard work is less work than doing an hour or so of less intense work across the term of a two week assignment. That logic just escapes me. For a culture that loves to multi-task while on conference calls, we seem to eschew the opportunity to multi-task on our longer term work assignments. Go figure.

I know I probably sound like a broken record (an interesting allusion since for all intents and purposes records are largely extinct and have been replaced by CDs and MP3s) but I am convinced that a lot of this crisis process is the result of our recognition and reward structures in business. Since we are largely working in “crisis” mode due to looming deadlines, we seek out those who can work well under this kind of pressure. I have referred to them in the past as fire fighters.

These are the “go to” staffs that are relied on to meet the deadline. They receive the recognition and rewards for being able to deliver in the clutch. It seems that those who practice “fire prevention” by taking steps ahead of time to complete their assignments in a non-crisis mode, do not garner as much management attention and perceived respect. The net result is that it doesn’t seem to pay to do the job efficiently and ahead of time. If you want to get noticed, you need a crisis.

And how do you get a crisis? You procrastinate.

So while Parkinson’s Law says that work expands to fill available time and Gobeli’s Corollary says that Procrastination reduces the perceived amount of work needed by reducing available time, there might also be a logical extension here regarding the relative rewards associated with “crisis work” as opposed to doing the same work in an orderly, non-crisis oriented manner. Perhaps the corollary should also incorporate an extended axiom:

“Work becomes more visible to and seems to be more valued by managers as proximity to the deadline grows”

That would play well with the observation that managers seem to recognize the contributions of fire fighters more so than the same contributions associated with those who perform the same work in non-crisis situations, and also explains why so many people seem to procrastinate in doing their assignments until they approach crisis proportions. It has been my experience that business leaders neither value the work of fire fighters more nor procrastinate to crisis levels. They get the work done on time because they know that they do not need to create crises of their own. There will be enough business issues for them to deal with.

Wow. And I got all this because I didn’t yet feel the urgency in having to come up with an article topic and getting written down. I suppose I should also say that I actually had two or three other articles already written, and though I was procrastinating there was probably a good reason why I wasn’t feeling the urgency to get this one done. I guess this early preparation thing can be a two edged sword.

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