Why procrastination is good for you (probably)
“Procrastination is your enemy.”
Or so you will have been told. “Meet all deadlines early and don’t leave things until the last minute.”
We’ve all had this sort of advice and it sounds sensible doesn’t it? I used to try not to procrastinate, I really did. I never quite managed it though, and after every missed deadline at school, or narrowly achieved target at university, I’d be angry with myself and promise to start early next time and leave myself plenty of time.
However, over the years I’ve noticed that this rush to get started early, might work for lawyers or dentists or even engineers. Most medics I’ve spoken to about this are last minute people though and would definitely describe themselves as procrastinators. Now, most of us feel bad about this and are eternally struggling to fight this tendency, but not this next guest you’re about to hear from.
The following interview is with a good friend of mine, a junior physician who knows a thing or two about procrastination. He claims he embraced procrastination very early on. Once he stopped feeling guilty he realised that in medicine, procrastination is the easy way to success.
Read the following carefully, and at your own risk.
ME: Hi IR, and thanks for agreeing to do this interview for www.doceatdoc.com
IR: No problem. It’s actually something I want to talk about as long as I don’t expose myself by name. I want budding medics to know that procrastination can be a force for good.
ME: We’ll keep your exact name under wraps but tell us firstly whether you’ve ever avoided procrastinating and actually started work on time or early and simply got things done.
IR: Sure, on one or two occasions, usually after being in trouble I have attempted to reform my ways and avoid the whole procrastination thing. I must say it does feel good whilst you’re riding that wave but whenever I did start early I found something interesting. The results were always worse than when I followed my usual technique of leaving things until the last minute and rushing like crazy to narrowly meet the deadline I was given.
ME: That’s very interesting. Why do you think that happened?
IR: Well speaking for myself, it seems that I need that last minute, high pressure environment to produce my best work! I found that starting work too early, left me unfocussed and too keen to do things bit by bit, slowly and lazily over many weeks.
ME: Right and that’s bad because…
IR: Yes is it’s very bad if you’re the type of person that needs a bit of pressure to really focus and produce the best quality work. I think most medical applicants, medical students and doctors actually fall into this category. They tend to be last minute people who thrive on pressure and are not only very able to produce outstanding quality under tight deadlines, they actually need tight deadlines to function properly. Sadly we’re always made to feel guilty about this as if it’s a major flaw.
ME: OK can you give us an example of what you mean here?
IR: Sure, during my second year at medical school, I had to do this huge research project. We were given the whole year to plan and carry out this thing. I paired up with a friend who was even more of a last minute type than me. Most people would have described him as “very lazy”.
ME: So what happened?
IR: We just ignored the project for the whole year. People around us were doing bits and pieces every now and again. We’d hear them complaining about it, but we just put it off and almost forgot about it.
ME: But a years worth of work can’t just be put off like that right?
IR: Well, when there was just a fortnight to go before the deadline, we realised we’d done nothing. We didn’t even have a title. So we started to panic a little. We hadn’t even collected any data so we started approaching various hospital consultants and research types to see whether there was any data we could use for a last minute research project.
We got plenty of irritated looks and comments but this one consultant managed to help us out by getting us access to his massive database of patients with liver disease. There were literally hundreds of patients on this thing. Now everyone reading that’s ever been involved with research probably be salivating as such data is a research monkeys dream. But by this stage the deadline was in a few days and we had other end of year projects to hand in plus exams. There was no way we were going to meet the deadline.
ME: But at least you’ve got some data right?
IR: Exactly! We went to the supervising lecturer at the medical school and basically begged for an extension of five days which would give us a free weekend to devote to this thing. He reluctantly agreed.
ME: So is a whole years work doable in a weekend?
IR: Yes. The two of us basically worked for twelve hours in total over the two days and handed the project in on the agreed, extended deadline.
ME: And what about the quality? Surely that must have suffered?
IR: Actually no. The quality was deemed to be excellent. The project was nominated for several prizes, got published in a leading journal and we later presented it at an international conference. It was the best thing my CV had on it for a long time! I still get asked about it at interverview. It’s a big paper.
The funny thing is, we knew we were turning out an amazing study whilst writing it during that intense last weekend. It felt like we were focused perfectly and could see the whole project coming together in front of our eyes.
I would argue that it is impossible to do that with a longer deadline and a more piecemeal approach over several sittings.
ME: Did that episode change the way you approached things after that?
IR: Well it taught me that some people are destined to be last minute people. They’ve always been doing it and getting away with it whilst being made to feel guilty. You’ll find that these people are always frustrated, trying to reform their ways but always ending up procrastinating anyway.
I think the sooner procrastinators realize that, they should embrace it and start putting it to good use to maximize their potential.
ME: I’m sure plenty of people reading this article (me included) are asking, how do we do that?
IR: Well the world is always going to give you long deadlines. These days I make my own deadlines. The minute I have something to do in a set time I make an assessment of the minimum time needed to get it done and leave exactly that much time before the deadline before I get started.
ME: That sounds stressful.
IR: Try it. It actually is a great stress reliever. Once you start deliberately planning in this way, you find you have more time in your schedule to do other things: time you originally spend fussing about how you really must start on project X or Y even though the deadline is a few weeks away.
ME: The majority of people reading this are going to be medical school applicants or people thinking about a career in medicine. Any advice for them.
IR: Well most, but not all, of that group will be last minute types anyway as those people are more likely to be attracted to careers like medicine.
My advice would be to embrace procrastination and start making it work for you by working back from each deadline to give yourself the exact amount of time needed. No more no less.
It’s something I wish I’d realised much earlier.
ME: Time to spend doing “other things” is just what I need. Let’s hope this interview can get some people working slightly more efficiently.
If you’ve read this far, please I’d be grateful if you could give this article a Facebook Like or a Tweet by clicking on the icons at the bottom. This is just the sort of advice from a hard won lesson that someone will thank you for. Let’s face it, this goes against everything we’re told at school.
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