Perhaps I might be forgiven, being in the age group I am, for making a mountain of a molehill and then considering the same as insurmountable. Imagine, therefore, my surprise, a sense of magical exhilaration when the other day I decided and was actually able to solve a simple household problem with a reasonable effort, an action I held up for months. The tendency of delaying decisive actions, which I own up with some embarrassment in this particular case, is a common trait known as procrastination.
While in the above case the problem posed could be resolved to one’s satisfaction, I am not sure that all kinds of small problems we face both in our day to day lives and the ‘larger’ problems of life in the realms of technology, environment, health as well as in the broader social, political, economic and cultural contexts can always, in a general way, be shown to possess happy or fair solutions. These may often be justifiably considered intractable and those called upon to make decisions may sometimes deserve, if not indulgence, at least some understanding for appearing to sit over these, from all concerned.
Decision to act may not always be easy, choices clear-cut and comfortable. No matter whether it is a problem faced by an individual or by a collective, difficulties in problem solving, sometimes making it an open-ended process, are often associated with an inadequate or incomplete problem definition that may happen sometime, in a typical real life scenario, due to lack of input information required and/or uncertainty in the available data. The indecisiveness to act in a way so as to move towards a (if not ‘the’) solution may also occur when one has to make choices among multiple solution strategies resulting in an outcome which, even though includes a good technically consistent solution to the original problem, makes the solution less worthy either because of incurring too much expense or for generating a new problem (a worrisome byproduct or an unanticipated side reaction).
If the problem-solving scenario is inherently collaborative in nature (as in the cases of a big community, public organisation) the decision-making cannot be done purely on the basis of an individual judgment or a preference. This might even bring, though not necessarily always, into play the social and even political determinants quite apart from purely technical or scientific/technological considerations that probably would have decided the course of action for an individual or a private close-knit organisation.
However, there is a belief (especially among many action oriented people) that delaying decisive actions, even at the risk of failures or sub-optimal solutions, does not help in the long run and may actually compound the problem. This is often seen to be validated in the case of community wide problem-solving by way of huge cost overruns and/or coming up with an outdated solution designed for a certain assumed scale that may have seen an increase by an order of magnitude during the pendency of the problem solving process.
Is there anything at all that can be said in favour of procrastination ? Surprising though it may sound, a recently published research has shown that in an organisation, the more creative workers/employees are those given to some degree of procrastination.
Imagine sitting on one those black pitiless grouted chairs outside a doctor’s chamber in a hospital pondering over a decision you are called upon to make regarding a critical and risky surgery one of your closest relatives is advised by the doctor to undergo for a possible (but not necessarily guaranteed) recovery. Other relatives are of course around like shadows or across wire tentatively chirping inane suggestions that only distracts you.
You alone will have to make a decision to go ahead or seek a second opinion under a cruelly short time frame across which the spectre of mortality or permanent debility hovers like a fog. Should you be bullied by the hospital or the doctor, the anxious relatives (potentially holding you responsible for any adverse consequence) and speedily sign the consent form or just shut out all the noise and calmly go over all the pros and cons (dangerously coming close to being accused of procrastination) before choosing between actually signing and refusing to do so ?
A friend of mine once wryly commented on being a witness to my frenetic activities (and a few minor accidents) in a chemistry laboratory, perhaps the best way to speed up a process is to slow it down ! A rather rhetorical homily in praise of procrastination in an era where speed is fetishised.
[A slightly modified and abridged version of this article has appeared recently in