From grade school on up we’re warned of the perils of procrastination. “You have three weeks,” says teach, “don’t wait till the last-minute.” There was always that “overachiever” who finished early and was looked upon with contempt by the rest of us with guilt-bred resentment. It wasn’t until recently that I realized just how rational procrastination can be. Is there virtue in finishing early? You have free time, but so does everyone else who started later. And hours are like dollars, one today is worth two tomorrow. So why start working on something before you need to?
I just read a book called The 80/20 Principle. The principle, though not new, is simple: 80% of our output comes from 20% of our inputs. For example, 80% of revenues come from 20% of clients, or 80% of the value we add to the business comes from 20% of our time/effort. There’s nothing sacred or even empirical about 80/20 as a number, but it serves as a useful guide to show there’s no one-to-one relationship between effort and results.
This principle came natural to me. You see, I was a solid B+ student in High School. There was no reason I couldn’t have been an A student. I just learned very early on that I could work a great deal less than most students and perform nearly as well. That free time was spent devouring the books I wanted to read, or studying subjects and people that interested me. The most important lessons I learned during High School were never graded.
You perfectionists out there might cringe or call me lazy, but you economists will immediately identify the law of diminishing returns. If I start a paper today and work on it for three weeks, is the incremental improvement over a procrastinated paper worth the extra effort? (especially given the subjectivity of grading, but that’s another story.)
A professor of mine used to say, “‘Anything worth doing is worth doing well’ is wrong. There are plenty of things that are worth doing that are worth doing ho-hum.” It’s not about laziness; it’s about not wasting time on the 80% of low value activities. And putting off a project/paper/proposal for later can be a perfectly rational.