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In Praise of Procrastination

April 9, 2015

Mores, Personal Growth

Procrastination

In his memoir Confessions, Saint Augustine tells us that he used to pray “Lord, make me chaste – but not yet.” Augustine’s prayer not only became the world’s greatest pick-up line, but also illustrated a plight so common, that it explained why most of the world’s great religions were against procrastination, seeing it as a clear detour from the path of salvation and enlightenment. Much later, the Industrial Revolution brought about a fusion of Christian moralism and commercial self-interest, so that procrastination was seen as forestalling not only salvation in the next life, but also financial well-being in this one. It was Benjamin Franklin who was credited with saying, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” With a few notable exceptions, such as Mark Twain (“Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow”), procrastination has usually had negative connotations.

This is strange because in both ancient Egypt and Rome procrastination was thought to be a positive virtue. The Latin verb procrastinate, combines the common adverb “pro” implying forward motion with “crastinus”, meaning belonging to tomorrow. The Roman use of the term seems to reflect the notion that deferring judgment may be the wisest course.  Indeed, the Romans revered someone who continually resisted and delayed intervention. His name was Fabius Maximus, nicknamed the “cunctator” (the procrastinator). Flavius drove Hannibal, who had obvious military superiority, crazy, by harassing him while avoiding or delaying engagement. After Flavius’s military successes in the Punic Wars the name “cunctator” became an honorific title.

Reflect on the fact that while the world is increasingly demanding speed and immediacy, nature takes her own good time (we haven’t yet found a way to speed the process from seed to fruit). Possibly procrastination is our natural defense against the speed of modernity, a way to let things take care of themselves as they so often do if we refrain from interfering. Judges know that sooner or later parties to a dispute will usually agree on a settlement without the intervention of the court, and that is why they are always postponing cases. However, there is a natural bias towards intervention which needs to be resisted. Professionals and advisors find it much easier to sell action rather than inaction.  Doctors get paid more for surgery than they do for waiting for the body to heal itself, and corporate managers get paid more for making profits than they do for preventing losses. Finally and counter-intuitively, action is easier than inaction, as it’s easier to act from pent-up emotions than do nothing as a result of reasoning.

_________________

“The key to success is to fight ambition with laziness.”  Yoshida Kenko

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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75 Comments on “In Praise of Procrastination”

  1. Snowbird of Paradise Says:

    I am very glad to read this tonight, having just changed my mind about something I thought I was sure about a week ago.

    Reply

  2. Buzz Says:

    Echoing Snowbird of Paradise, I try to delay my decisions as long as possible. That lets me evaluate the options not only from different points of view but also through different moods and situations. If I can wait long enough, seemingly hard decisions often present themselves. (I’d never succeed as a military commander.) On the other hand, I did pay my taxes on time!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Buzz, good points. Clearly there are some actions, such as paying your taxes, which need to be done in a timely manner. However, for the rest, delaying a decision as long as possible often unexpectedly reveals some novel solutions to the problem.

      Reply

  3. Keith Channing Says:

    I was once called into my boss’s office (Project Manager on a very major overseas construction site) and asked about a letter I had sent to him for approval some months before, and that had somehow only just surfaced. I said, “Forget about that now; it’s been overtaken by events.” His reply shocked me then (bearing in mind his position and industry) and, in a way, does still. He said, “I often find if you leave things long enough, the urgency wears off.” Latter day cunctator?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Keith, definitely a cunctator, whether aware of the term or not. Maybe, in the interests of efficiency large corporations should have a moratorium on opening all but the most time-sensitive correspondence, until two weeks have passed.What do you think?

      Reply

  4. john flanagan Says:

    A fine read, Malcolm, hugely enjoyable.
    Thank You for sharing.

    Best Wishes

    john

    Reply

  5. Victo Dolore Says:

    I am posting a link to a Freakonomics pod cast this afternoon that discusses research showing that patients do better with fewer procedures when cardiologists are away at conferences. Made me giggle maniacally because yes, as Voltaire put it sometimes, “The art of medicine consists of entertaining the patient while nature cures the disease.” Waiting/procrastination IS often the best course.

    Reply

  6. matt Says:

    I think I’ll get around to considering this sometime.

    An excellent post, Malcolm; and timely for me as well since I’ve been taking active steps to sort of pump the brakes in life. We Americans spend too much of our lives careening at high speeds on the edge of a canyon cliff, not unlike Wile E Coyote and the Roadrunner. My family and I are somewhat fed up with being little clouds of impact dust.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “little clouds of impact dust.”

      Matt, I know the feeling well. Time to walk along the edge of the canyon and admire the view. Life is too short. Please consider joining the Cunctator Society (membership fees have been deferred indefinitely).

      Reply

      • matt Says:

        I’m getting there, Malcolm. We leave early enough that we don’t have to rush to where we’re going, which means we can talk on the drive. We don’t schedule things to where we have to rush around between engagements. We are enjoying taking our time where ever we go.

        Reply

  7. Mikels Skele Says:

    A much needed answer to our everything-and-now culture. (I apologize for not putting this comment off until later)

    Reply

  8. insanitybytes22 Says:

    Well said.

    Along with fears of procrastination comes this unwillingness to invest in long term goals, so life becomes a bit more like seeking instant gratification in all things. People ourselves are now changing, our attention spans are getting shorter, we demand immediate results, and people are hurrying about all of the time.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I agree with you IB, although sometimes I think it’s just that we are getting older, slowing down and are less willing to tolerate change. As usual, it’s probably a bit of both 🙂

      Reply

  9. cattalespress Says:

    This is another one of your great thought-provoking posts Malcolm. It brings to mind one of my favorite words: organic. It always brings me peace of mind to watch things progress organically! In common usage, organic is used to mean “healthful” or “close to nature.” But I know in the modern, pill-popping world, the idea of allowing for the natural organic process to happen in situations is a difficult concept to swallow. TY for your insight!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I would never have thought to use the word organic in this context but it fits perfectly. Everything comes to fruition in its own good time and you can’t rush things without also spoiling them. Organic growth is unpressured, without undue interference. Thank you for your insight too.

      Reply

  10. chr1 Says:

    I finally got around to reading this…

    Reply

  11. Jon Sharp Says:

    Great post Malcolm. I think Angela Merkel is the modern day Fabius Maximus.

    Reply

  12. Middlemay Farm Says:

    I think there’s a difference between delaying an important decision and dreading dealing with something that must be dealt with (like avoiding the dentist even when your mouth hurts–I did that once and lived to regret it). 🙂

    I loved Augustine’s Confessions until he deserted his lady love–I’m a romantic and wanted them both converted.

    Reply

  13. aaforringer Says:

    Your final line made me think of a Hemingway quote, “Never confuse action for progress.”

    Great article, again.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      You’re a mine of good quotes. I didn’t know that was Hemingway but it’s very apt. I think the default position is to act, to do something, anything, because it’s an emotional release. Calmly evaluating the situation during, say, an emotional maelstrom, and then deciding to do nothing, is actually a difficult intellectual exercise.

      Reply

  14. Dalo 2013 Says:

    Twain had some pretty impressive quote, but “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow” may be one of his best. As much as I hate (and sometimes bury myself with stress and panic) procrastination, I think it has also been the germinator of ideas, allowed me the time to see through issues more clearly and take action where I might not otherwise have taken if not allowing time for a solution to come naturally ~ to make the decision for me in a sense.

    I never realized that back in ancient Egypt and Rome these were considered virtues to some extent…it sure is far away from where society views procrastinators today. The last company I work with is in a very precarious situation financially because every CEO thought quick decisions means great leadership. Simply not the case.

    You channel a bit of your inner Daoist with your ideas in this piece and I love it. The patience of nature produces some of the most spectacular scenes and life imaginable, and it all happens without haste. Allowing time for decisions to be made also makes it possible to get out and enjoy life a bit more than you otherwise would. Your final thought was perfect, as you end it with the most beautiful of all Daoist thought “when nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “when nothing is done, nothing is left undone.”

      I had no idea this was a Daoist concept and of course, this aphorism says it so much better than I did. I’m glad this post spoke to you Dalo. Your blog is a haven of beauty, peace and tranquility, in a loud, brash blogosphere. I find it hard to imagine the author of that blog being stressed and panicked, although it happens to all of us at times.

      Reply

      • Dalo 2013 Says:

        If there were a procrastinators hall-of-fame for college students, I would be a first ballot inductee 🙂 Things have changed a bit over the years, but a little stress and panic is good for the soul at times. Cheers Malcolm ~

        Reply

  15. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    I have so much that calls for my attention…think I’ll have to put off commenting…

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      That would be funny HW, but in your case it’s probably true, as you have so many questions and comments to answer. However, you do raise an interesting point. Even persistent procrastinators can be very busy. If you postpone doing whatever is at the top of your list of priorities, you are still busy doing all the actions below it.

      Reply

  16. rung2diotimasladder Says:

    I’m definitely not a procrastinator; things weigh on my mind and I figure it’s best to just hurry up and get it over with. But you’ve brought up some good points here for certain types of procrastination, which really amounts to thinking things over and letting things stew for a while instead of making a rash (and possibly bad) decision.

    I’m just now learning to do this with purchases. I used to think, “If I don’t buy it now, they’ll sell out and I won’t be able to get it later. Plus, I’ll have to come back, and that’s a pain in the butt.” This is hardly ever the case. Usually it goes on sale or I find I didn’t want the thing anyways. I recognize this is hardly rocket science, but for non-procrastinating types, it’s something to remember.

    Reply

  17. D.G.Kaye Says:

    Great post Malcolm I particularly liked the last part, “Doctors get paid more for doing surgery rather than waiting for the body to heal.” It’s a sad truth in many cases. I think it would do the whole world to slow down and take a breath sometimes than always trying to find the ‘next best thing’.

    Reply

  18. Andrea Stephenson Says:

    I think this may be the first positive thing I’ve read about procrastination, but it’s so often true that a decision left unmade works out in the end. Maybe I’ll be less hard on myself when I procrastinate in future…

    Reply

  19. Aquileana Says:

    It seems that nowadays procrastination is the big sin, so as to say… I am just thinking of the pretentious expression ¨time management¨…
    Your post speaks out loud… Interesting and accurate as per usual… And I don´t want to forget to highlight Saint Augustine´s quote: “Lord, make me chaste – but not yet.” Excellent!!!!… Have a great week, dear Malcolm!!!! Best wishes to you. Aquileana ⭐

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “the pretentious expression ¨time management”

      Pretentious expression indeed. I should have used the term “time management” in the post as it sums up everything that is wrong with the idea that life should be regulated by a series of planned actions. Thank you for drawing attention to it.

      Reply

  20. Outlier Babe Says:

    Marvelous: I need only send a copy of this post to my peskily persistent medical billers to fend off their irksome Collections efforts! Thank you!!
    🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I think we are both agreed that some actions have to be taken in a timely manner, but I’m equally sure that you would eventually pay your bills even without those “irksome Collections efforts”.

      Reply

      • Outlier Babe Says:

        Of key significance, that “eventually”.
        😉

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Agreed, although if those medical billers trusted more to procrastination I wonder whether the cost of all those collection efforts would be worthwhile i.e. you are going to pay eventually so the only benefit of their collection efforts is to try to make you pay a little earlier.

        • Outlier Babe Says:

          One would think the med. institutions would wonder the same. But the new approach, is to send the second bill marked “FINAL” and send any unpaid balance immediately to collections. Rather startling, really, since they know we insured ignore bills until all insurance payments have been received–as only makes sense.

          Eh. I am the impervious turnip from which no blood can be squizzen.

  21. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    I like the Latin. =) And the observation of nature’s sweet timing. Your final paragraph brings to the fore human contradictions. I am amused by St. Augustine’s prayer but there are also many prayers in the Bible that implore God to come without delay (and get the saints out of a pickle). To keep to your point, seems we often find ourselves in great conflict when it comes to desire and responsibility.

    Reply

  22. NicoLite Великий Says:

    The wise man should know rhe difference between things that need to be done, and things that need to be done… later 🙂

    Reply

  23. UpChuckingwords Says:

    I’m a major procrastinator …ruminating way too much. Thank you for making me feel better about my “ways”.

    Reply

  24. jhana jian Says:

    Yes, nature does take her own sweet time about things, and thank god for that. If we didn’t have the patience of nature as an example, I suspect humanity would go insane with its frantic business.

    There’s a sense of timelessness in nature that soothes and comforts us, and makes all our petty worries and ambitions seem just silly. All of our self-important hurry evaporates in nature’s eternal patience.

    It’s a beautiful day outside. I think I’ll go soak up some sunshine. 🙂

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      I suspect humanity would go insane…

      Excellent point. Nature also offers us the opportunity for real solitude without which we would also eventually go insane. Here is one of my favorite passages from John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, written in 1848:

      “It is not good for man to be kept perforce at all times in the presence of his species. A world from which solitude is extirpated is a very poor ideal. Solitude, in the sense of being often alone, is essential to any depth of meditation or of character; and solitude in the presence of natural beauty and grandeur, is the cradle of thoughts and aspirations which are not only good for the individual, but which society could ill do without.”

      Reply

  25. L. Marie Says:

    “Possibly procrastination is our natural defense against the speed of modernity.” I never thought of that. Well, then I am certainly doing my part to stand against the speed of modernity. 🙂 I sat outside in the sunshine and put off working for a while. I thoroughly enjoyed those moments outside.

    Reply

  26. Daniela Says:

    Very interesting post Malcolm, thank you! I would suggest that there is a fine line between procrastination and thoughtful/careful consideration. Procrastination does not necessarily means that thoughtful consideration to action/inaction has been given … it could and often is simple avoidance! Whether or not action (or absence of it) would yield results better (or worse) to those that eventuated is matter of speculation and ‘what ifs’!

    Have an enjoyable week!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Daniela, I certainly agree that procrastination is often no more than simple avoidance and nobody is suggesting avoiding time critical actions such as paying one’s taxes. However, even simple avoidance without “thoughtful consideration” often works, because the problem goes away, or somehow takes care of itself. Just now I was berating myself for not responding to a friend’s communication, but he just contacted me saying that he has been traveling and will let me know when he returns to civilization.

      Reply

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