Note: This is part of a series of discussions on decision making and the timing of
decisions, to read from the beginning start with Part 1.
“Don’t put off for tomorrow, that which could be done today” is what Benjamin
Franklin used to say, cautioning against procrastination. When congress punts
on a decision, media heads will be sure to admonish them for “Kicking the can
down the road”. That procrastination is a vice is so thoroughly ingrained in
our minds, I almost felt that it was unnecessary to write an article about it.
However the more I’ve spent thinking about and studying it, the more I realized
I never understood.
Why Procrastination is a vice
First of all, it may be good to go over why procrastination is a vice. The book
of Proverbs counsels:
Withhold not good from them to whom it is due, when it is in the power of
thine hand to do it. Say not unto thy neighbour, Go, and come again, and to
morrow I will give; when thou hast it by thee.
Proverbs 3:27-28 (KJV)
The proverb talks of withholding from someone, something that they are due,
despite it being in our power to restore it to them. In this sense
procrastination, more so than just delaying any action, is about delaying doing
something good, and putting it off into the future. Procrastination is a vice,
not because it drives us to actively do evil, but because it lulls us to
refrain from doing good.
Not only that but procrastinating leads us to be dishonest. When we exhibit
sloth, we lie to ourselves and others about what we will do in the future. The problem
is that we don’t know the future, things change, and in the future we might not
be able or willing to fulfill those obligations.
Why we procrastinate
Like many vices, procrastination – also called sloth – is born as a reaction to some
negative emotion. That emotion can be fear, where we put off those things we
are afraid of doing. It could be apathy; when we really don’t care about the
task at hand, it can be easy to simply say “I will do it later”.
In software design and development, Bob Martin describes this as
overconfidence. He outlines how developers can trick themselves with a sort of
mental trap. We tell ourselves that we can write code fast now, and then switch
modes to fix it and make it right later. The problem is that this is a lie. We
may not recognize it, we may even believe it, but it is a lie none the
less, born by our overconfidence in predicting the future, as well as a
foolish pride in our own abilities.
Now is the time to choose
As of yet, I have talked about delaying action. As I said above procrastination
revolves around avoiding work in the immediate term. You wouldn’t say you
procrastinate shoveling snow off the walks in the summer, as there is no snow
to shovel until winter. In short, can we meaningfully talk about being slothful
towards the future?
Joshua (the Hebrew Prophet) exhorted the Israelites to “choose you this day”.
Serving the Lord would be a lifelong commitment. Yet he told them to choose
now, not later. Why couldn’t it have waited until the moment that it mattered?
Certainly the Israelites weren’t always under the temptation to rebel.The
thing is, Joshua was not merely urging the Israelites to decide how they will
act in the future, he is calling them to decide who they will become in the
Is there a sense in which we procrastinate the things of the future? Yes, when
we fail to establish goals. When we fail to choose now what our purpose is and
who we want to be, we have become negligent towards our own futures. Failing to
establish a purpose today is merely procrastinating what we could become
Goals: Shaping to our future
There are most likely many reasons for why committing to goals now is
important, but I will proffer two. First is that we will all eventually reach
the end of our days having become something. What that something is, however,
is in our hands. In fact the kind of person we become may be one of the few
things that we have full control over. The other thing we have full control
over is our desires, which drive our goals. It is a tragedy if we are not
conscious of what we desire to become, because that means we have given up one
of the things we have full control over and ceded it to the world surrounding
Finally, establishing goals now helps build commitment for later. Commitment
to a purpose is built over time, and is not a resource that can be provided “on
demand”. While each choice is made in the moment, we can build up reserves of
commitment over time by deciding what we want to become now. This commitment can
help keep us from loosing our way when times get tough.
Part of the reason I wanted to write this article was to explore an incongruity
I had uncovered in my own thinking, with regard to when we should make
decisions. My previous article was and is a sincere exposition. However it has
stuck with me that throughout my life I have often been taught that
procrastination, and being noncommittal, are vices. This article explores those
thoughts and aims to be an honest proponent for them. If you disagree with the points
I made here, or are interested in a ‘counterpoint’, I would suggest reading Part 1.
Once again I would like to thank my friend Nathan Cheever, and my wife for being willing to listen
to me prattle on for hours about this topic. I highly recommend reading Nathans Blog.