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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #69, 1/17/2007

The Power of Procrastination

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

States and nations have their laws, and individuals should have them, too. These are rules, usually expressable in words, which govern your own personal behavior and decision making. These rules can start out simply, like "Cause no pain to others," then they can be refined over time as you gain experience, in a process similar to case law. A more experienced rule might be: "Cause no pain to others except when it is necessary to prevent even greater long-term pain."

Some simple rules come down to us in traditional proverbs, like, "A stitch in time saves nine," or "Don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today." The wisdom of those two sayings is obvious: If you address a problem at its earliest stages, then you can often fix it at much lower cost than fixing it later.

Every law can be misapplied, however. While some problems should be fixed as soon as possible, others should not be, and if you try, then you could end up with higher costs in the long run.

For example, you wouldn't want to decide when and where you are going to take your vacation ten years from now, even if you could save money on the trip by nailing it down now. That would be silly, because so much can change during that time. The risk is that you book your vacation, pay for it, then have to forfeit it when something more important comes up.

A more appropriate rule in many situations is: "Don't decide today what you can put off 'til tomorrow."

Whenever you are facing an important decision, there is enormous pressure to solve the problem right away, just to get it out of the way and to give your life a predictable structure. This is a dangerous seduction, because there is so much you don't know about the future. Ideally, you want to delay every important decision for as long as you can, just to give yourself more time to collect information and to give more issues time to resolve themselves.

Let's say you are in your senior year of high school and have applied to several colleges, and by April 1, three of them have accepted you. You have to choose one of them by June 30. Even if you think you know the college you want, there is really no benefit in making a decision until just before the deadline. What you gain in the meantime is more potential freedom, not just to pick the right college but maybe even choose a fourth alternative that isn't apparent initially. (Maybe you shouldn't go to college at all!)

No matter how carefully you plan your life, unexpected factors are bound to step in, both disasters and opportunities. It is hard enough to predict what will happen a month or a year from now; longer terms begin to enter the realm of speculation and fantasy. Strategically, it is usually better to make the minimal decision you have to right now, and reserve all other discretion until more of the future unfolds.

This rule can be applied to all manner of personal issues: planning a vacation, choosing a career, starting a business, looking for love. The emotional and social pressures usually tell you to decide everything right away, but it is usually more prudent to drag your feet and not make any more decisions right now than you need to. What you ought to be seeking are options for the future, not necessarily a specific plan.

If you are on a car dealer's lot, the salesman is always going to pressure you to buy right now, and weak buyers without strong internal rules are going to give in. The salesman wants to close the deal right away, because he knows darn well that if you walk off the lot, you might not be back. It's in your own best interests, however, to delay the decision for as long as possible, because you're the one who has to live with it and who never has enough information.

There is no reason to buy a car—or engage in any other big commitment—until you absolutely have to. If you already own a car, you want to run it into the ground until it is no longer economical to maintain. At that point, the common question is "new or used." However, a more intelligent question would be: "How much of my future freedom will I have to give up for this car?"

If you buy a new car and are committing yourself to five years of payments, you are giving up a great deal of freedom. If you buy a ugly duckling with the cash you have in your pocket, then you are reserving your freedom. If the cheap car gives out in six months, then you simply buy another one, based on your new needs and resources at the time.

Whenever possible, it usually best to make these point-to-point decisions rather than one big one.


Reader Comments

“really worth a serious thought” — 4/12/08 (rating=3)

“This is absolutely brilliant, and rings true. As an addendum, procrastination is one excellent means of suicide prevention.” —Ryan 6/1/09 (rating=5)

Ratings so far: 3 3 5 (Average=3.6)

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