Don Norman: Designing For People

Nielsen Norman Group

Why Procrastination Is Good

After dinner talk at the 20th Anniversary Celebration of the Human Computer Interaction Institute, CMU, Pittsburgh, PA. Nov. 2014.


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Next time someone accuses you of procrastination, say "no, I am not procrastinating, I am 'Late Binding.' "  That should shut them up.

Let me argue for late binding - delay, or if you like, procrastination - as a preferred way of life.

"Late binding" is a technical term in computer science, meaning, basically, to delay decisions until as late as possible. Now if you look the term up in Wikipedia, you will find it discussed in rather disparaging terms. Making decisions early means it is possible to check their accuracy, etc. Making early decisions improves efficiency at the time of execution: no more thinking or gathering of information - just act. These reasons might be OK if the goal in life is to improve the efficiency of our machines, but when it comes to accommodating the complexities of human behavior, these are all poor reasons.  

Delaying decisions until the time for action is beneficial for lots of reason. First, it provides the maximum amount of time to think, plan, and determine alternatives. Second, it enhances flexibility, allowing the actual action to take full advantage of the unique circumstances at the time it is required. And third, because the requirements are continually shifting and changing, delaying decisions allows the  most current issues and situations to be accommodated.

Detailed planning ahead of time almost never provides the right solutions for the situations that actually develop. There are many favorite sayings about the role of planning. Basically they all come down to this:

It is important to plan. Business, people should all plan, spend a few days developing plans for the future. Senior officers in the military plan in the same way.  But when the finished exercise is complete, throw away the plans. The act of planning is beneficial, it makes one think through all the possibilities. But the real world never permits a plan to be executed: so throw away the plan. The plan will not be right when the time comes to execute it. It is the activity of planning that prepares us for whatever transpires.

Planning ahead may be efficient, but it is not realistic in a variable, ever-changing world.

Consider school. When do you decide what field you wish to major in? What job you will take?  Answer - whatever opportunities arise. How many people are still in the field that they majored in? How many people knew precisely what job they would take before it was even offered?  There are some, but they are few.

The majority of us do late binding. We prepare ourselves and then we select whatever opportunity seems most appropriate at the time. (This is how I have lived my entire life: a series of accidents, but truth is, I was reasonably well prepared for each.)

When I am asked to do a task, I delay it as long as possible. I usually finish it at the last possible moment. This paper is an example: Many months ago, I promised to give this as a talk. Yet here it is Friday morning, with my talk scheduled for Saturday, and I am finally getting around to writing down my ideas while seated in the airplane flying to Pittsburgh. Why is it good that I have delayed so long? Because the talk was on my mind the whole time. I was alert to examples that I would encounter. I considered several various alternative talks. By the time I got onto the airplane, my thoughts had coalesced. Calling "late binding" procrastination came to me only a few hours ago, while in the car driving to the airport. Similarly, thinking of school as a necessary condition for procrastinating in the choice of one's lifetime career resulted late.  Had I tried to write the paper at the time I agreed to present it, it would have lost. (Some of you might even think that I should have delayed for longer.)  Delay can be valuable.  

Note too that deadlines are equally valuable. Without the rapidly approaching deadline when I have to stand up after dinner and deliver this after-dinner talk, I would still be procrastinating. A lack of time pressure allows the mind to be creative, to explore possibilities. A bit of stress focuses the mind, allowing the final compilation of all the earlier random, creative thoughts. Late binding is beneficial.

Schooling is precisely the route to late binding. The philosophy of school is to prepare people for whatever situation they will find themselves in later. Schooling cannot predict: it prepares. (Whether schooling actually accomplishes this is a different issue, reserved for a different time.)

Consider the design of something. Engineers want to be given the precise specification so that they can then deliver to the specs. They get very annoyed when the designers hesitate and delay. Why do designers delay? Because the hardest part of design is getting the specs right. In fact, no matter how well they are prepared, studied, and stated, by the time the product actually ships, the specs are out of date.

The best way to design, therefore, is to procrastinate. Practice late binding. Try to design for flexibility so that no matter what actually happens, the system can adapt.  The specifications are never right. Planning never produces the exact answer for the exact conditions that take place. People always will change their behavior. In fact, people have no choice when unexpected events occur. And, as I am fond of saying, we know two things about unexpected events: they will always occur; when it odes occur, it will be unexpected.

A second problem is that if a product truly delivers great experiences and capabilities, people will use it in ways not anticipated to take even further advantage of those capabilities, thereby making the "perfect" specification irrelevant.

So prepare. Study. Get ready.  But delay the actual decision as late as possible.  Procrastinate. Practice late binding.

Postscript

In response to many comments to this article as published on LinkedIn, let me emphasize several items.

  • Honor deadlines. Yes, I procrastinate up to the deadline, but when the deadline arrives, I deliver. It is not fair to co-workers and others to screw up their schedule. If there is no deadline, I usually set one for myself, the better to force myself to deliver. How do I enforce my self-set deadline? I make it publicly known: I announce it to my friends or via social media.
  • Procrastination is only useful for complex tasks. For simple tasks, do them the instant you hear of them. Keep the number of active activities low: reserve yourself for the important activities.
  • The phrase "just-in-time" is probably a better description of my recommendation than is "late-binding." But I was giving my talk to computer scientists, so I used the expression they were familiar with.


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