Creative Procrastination—Less Work, Less Worry

December 23, 2006

“Procrastination is the thief of time”

That whimper has been heard too often to goad children and adults into action.

Habitual procrastination with every activity does have negative consequences. Also, there is the nagging worry of having projects hanging over your head.

However, procrastination, used as a selective tool, can really be used to benefit. It just requires a clear understanding of when procrastination adds value. The trick is to spend a few minutes and see what the consequences for procrastination are for the activity at hand. The activities tend to fall into groups. Some examples are shown below:

Procrastinate based on the Effect of Time on Consequences

Progressive—The negative consequences of not acting increase with time. There is no benefit to delay.

Example: A young patient has cataracts and the eye doctor reports that they will require surgery within the next year

Comment: This is a progressive problem as there is continued decrease in vision until the operation. In progressive cases, there is greater benefit in acting soon (in order to restore better eyesight) rather than later to have the same result.

Self-limiting—The consequences do not change with time, but there is a deadline.

Example: A child’s birthday party has space for 10 people, but 12 or 13 have accepted.

Comment: This is a self limiting problem, since the consequences are known and reasonable. It is also, the experience that cancellations of known acceptances to parties, weddings etc. are generally about 10%. There are always ways to handle an extra person. Consequently, no advance action is required for self-limiting projects.

Schedule dependent—At a known time, an event occurs and time for action is over.

Example: A progress report is due in two weeks.

Comment: This is fully schedule dependent. The important point is to begin work at the right time. If you start too early, the effort drags on and consumes additional work. Habitual procrastinators begin work too late and end up in a crush. Schedule dependent projects are best handled by initially making a reasonable estimate of the amount of work required and then putting the work on hold until the appropriate time.

Chronic–Minimal negative consequences, no end date. If the consequences are acceptable, there is no reason to devote energy to it.

Chronic projects, such as cleaning the house, tend not to happen. Life can go on without them.
However, other chronic projects, such as contacting an old friend, also fall into the chronic category. However in these cases, the consequences of regaining contact with a friend are fully positive. Activities without deadlines that have positive consequences tend to be undervalued. Additional emphasis on the value of positive consequences may be needed to determine whether procrastination is of use.

In summary, the approach is to estimate the effect of elapsed time on the consequences and take the appropriate action. The nagging worries of an undone project have been addressed.

Two perspectives of worry

1.Write down the pressing concerns on a sheet of paper. Put the list aside for a week, and then look at it again. Note how many have disappeared on their own. Work on those that remain.

2. “If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.” (His Holiness the Dalai Lama)

Project Reality Checks—Keeping Perspective or Heading in the Wrong Direction

December 15, 2006

At the beginning of a vacation trip, there is always something exhilarating about getting on a clear Interstate knowing that you are finally on the way. When that first highway sign marking direction appears, a doubt can creep in—is this the right direction?

A new project at work has a similar feel. There is always energy and excitement in the early phases. People have ideas, good energy, and build on each others ideas. There is some support from management and project direction is beginning to take shape. People are anxious to move down the path and get things done at a good pace.

The difference between the vacation trip and the work project is that there are no road signs to remind people to check the direction. People have to build their own markers. This step is often not taken, with the risk that, over time, the project can go off track as conditions change.

One approach is to have selected individual, who are so inclined, to explicitly take the responsibility to check the perspective in a more dispassionate way and probe the larger project group with their doubts as needed. This probing can be done by Listening for Consequences during the discussion or considering the project through nagging background questions.


What flaws in the basic assumptions have come to light since the project started?
New information always becomes available. The check is to determine if this has an affect on the work.

What is known, but not being discussed?
There are sometimes concerns that people would just prefer to avoid. The direction is to address them before they become major problems.

What is being missed here? What is being overlooked?
These questions are the most challenging and creative of all. It takes some insight and effort to bring to light things that have not yet been on the table for discussion.

What other ways can this work be done?
Once people have momentum, it becomes more difficult to consider a course correction. This question raises this possibility

Does this level of detailed effort matter to the project?
Sooner or later, work creeps in that really has little effect on the goals. This question forces consideration of this possibility

There is a tendency to make perspective checking a group responsibility. Often this approach simply doesn’t work. Generally, the group should be pushing forward. Otherwise, there will be a tendency to just planning and fretting and frozen into paralysis. Also, by diffusing the activity, no one is responsible for the analysis. Finally, many individuals do not have the temperament to change mental directions so quickly and hence it is inefficient to ask them to do this.

It’s really not much more effort, but occasionally asking a few nagging questions are effective to keep the project going in the best direction.

Asking Good Quick Questions

December 8, 2006

It happens every day: The mind blanks as the talk ends and the speaker closes with: “Any questions?” The room quiets and it seems that nothing can be recalled from the just concluded talk. It is particularly awkward when no one at all responds. What happened? Better, what can be done to get the discussion going.

There is a skill to being ready for these questions. For some, it’s second nature. If it isn’t though, a little preparation can make the questions come to mind much easier.

Three Steps for Quick Questions–Finding, Keeping, Asking

Find the topics that raise questions.

For some people, the topics appear to be completely covered by the speaker and there is to be added. The trick is to listen more critically to identify areas of further interest. Here, it may be appropriate to listen for consequences.

The premise of Listening for Consequences is that in order to understand what someone is saying, the consequences must also be considered. This technique allows questions to surface and adds another dimension to understanding the subject. The above link describes this method with examples.

Keep the hooks for the questions.

Most talks proceed so fast that topics come and go before the listeners can fully consider them. Some points do raise questions, but, in a flash, the speaker is on to the next topic. For those points that do raise questions, though, make a mental or written note (one or two words will do), so that it can be used to bring it back to mind when the question period begins

Ask without judging the question.

Prejudging the quality of the question is the major deterrent to actually putting it forward. No need to wait and let the pressures mount.

The fact is that most questions are fine. This fact can help to defuse the inhibition of the naturally occurring doubt. The only questions that are not well received are those with long introductions that serve primarily to demonstrate the questioner’s expertise. Long winded questions are not asked by people concerned with the quality of their own question.

Just as in tennis, the asking the question is like the serve that puts the ball into play. Then, it is the speaker’s responsibility to do what he wishes with it.

Asking quick questions is related to the short article: Getting Ideas into the Discussion.

The Bird in the Cage–Story

December 1, 2006

A bird found himself in a cage.The cage life was really all he remembered and, as such, it seemed like a normal life for a bird.

It was a decent sized cage and there was enough room to move around comfortably, although not to fly.He regularly toured the cage, often finding some twigs, straw, cloth, some food and water.Well, the bird thought, since he was here, he may as well make himself comfortable.So, he began making a crude nest.As time went on, he found other things around to make himself a first class home, with plenty of diversions and food.Not too bad, he thought.It might be nice to try out the wings, but then again he was comfortable.

One day, during his regular inspection, he was surprised to see that the cage had a door!The cage had not been changed, the door had always been there, the bird had simply not noticed it before.The bird was intrigued and inspected it further.To his astonishment, the latch of the door was not locked.With one peck on his part, the latch disengaged and the door swung open.

There were never any constraints, just the lack of recognition of the actual situation. The bird perched at the threshold of flying into freedom. Ready to go out, or not?


Just because it appears normal, is that the way it really is?

Is comfort enough, even when restrictive.

Ready to go out, or not?

Additional Stories

This is a link to a Collection of Zen Stories     (

Finding and Hiring a Tutor—Interviewing for Value

December 1, 2006

Private tutoring is an expensive proposition for families. It’s important to select an individual who really brings value to the students. Their experience is fully dependent upon the person hired.

There is plenty of general advice about tutoring on the web. Sooner or later though, there is an interview and a decision to hire a particular person must be made. It’s important to have some ideas of value in tutoring before the selection process.

The points below can provide specific background to improve the chances of hiring an effective tutor.

1. Value Tutoring–Example.

A young woman was doing poorly in an introductory Physics course. She was clearly bright and motivated. She was having difficulty applying the mathematical equations of motion the travel path of a thrown baseball. It was clear, after a short discussion, that she had really understood the use of the mathematical equations, usually the most difficult step.

However, the young woman did not have a clear picture in her mind of a thrown ball traveling through the air. She had not used her own experience to understand the physical situation.Without this information, she could not use the mathematics properly. The instruction emphasized making diagrams of the physical situation to gain this understanding.Once made, it seemed simple and she was able to solve these problems quite readily.After a few sessions, the young woman was on her own doing well. Further, the technique of making the effort to understand the physical situation can be generalized to other subjects

2. Value Goals.

Consider these two objectives in view of the tutor’s approach to teaching.

(i) The goal of one-on-one teaching is to identify the obstacles and provide the tools to allow the student to work at his full potential independently as efficiently as possible.

(ii) Tutoring should be viewed by the student, parent and tutor as a focused short term activity.

3. Skill Levels.

Individuals have different skills. Here is one way to classify them by value.

(i) Minimum Requirements

Objective credentials in the field (formal education, test scores, training for special learning situations, experience

(ii) Value Requirements

Demonstrated perceptive abilities to precisely identify the obstacles to learning. The real value is to diagnose the problem.

The ability to teach specific methods to overcome these obstacles

(iii) High Value Requirements

The problem solving techniques are presented so that the student can gain confidence and expand their use to other subjects

4. Interview by listening for the tutors attitude.

During the interview with the prospective tutor, first confirm that the objective credentials are present. Then look for value:

Does the individual’s instruction method lead to the value goals listed above?

How has the tutor demonstrated the ability to diagnose obstacles?

It is more effective to listen to their conversation to find out if these types of value activities emerge in their own words. An effective way is to just to listen to the way they discuss their work. However, if these questions are asked directly, there will always be a positive answer.

5. Check the references against the high skills criteria.

References are only provided if they are generally positive.

Look beyond the overall results. Specifically ask about the references about the experience with the tutor in diagnosing specific issues. Ask about the length of the teaching and how the stopping point was determined.


In summary, tutoring selection decisions are often made quickly and without a criteria for evaluation of the tutor. Then the instruction activity begins, expenses mount, and performance is what it is. However, with just a little more attention at the beginning, the chances of have a good tutoring experience can be increased.