Avoiding Unexpected Change Cost with Strategic Procrastination

Unexpected change cost is a term coined by author Rory Vaden in his 2015 book, Procrastinate on Purpose: 5 Permissions to Multiply Your Time. This is the idea that performing tasks long before their deadlines is not always ideal—unexpected changes may arise that reduce or eliminate the value of working ahead. I prefer referring to “procrastinating on purpose” as strategic procrastination.

When you work ahead on your to-do list, you run the risk that expectations and other variables may change or be clarified. You also run the risk that you work may become completely nullified. For example, say you are buying uniforms for a new job that starts next Monday. If you buy them today, Tuesday, and then get a call on Thursday saying your employer no longer wants to hire you, you’ve just encountered unexpected change cost. Not only did you go through the hassle of buying the uniforms—you also must now waste more time returning them. If you would have instead procrastinated until Friday to buy the uniforms, you wouldn’t have needed to buy them at all. Of course, there is a balance—putting the task off until Sunday may be dangerous because of unforeseen issues—you may not be able to find the correct uniforms quickly, for example. Vaden dubs this the continuum between worry warts and gun slingers. Worry warts often pay unexpected change cost, while gun slingers often miss deadlines or opportunities due to waiting too long. Finding a happy medium is important, and is often not intuitive.

People are often surprised by my unerring punctuality: if I have a meeting at 1:00 p.m., I tend to show up at 12:59 p.m.—not 12:50 p.m. or 1:05 p.m. Of course, unexpected traffic delays or other variables can make me late, but these risks must be counterbalanced against the risk of wasting my time by arriving too early. The importance of the meeting in question, cultural expectations, and personal expectations of the person(s) I am meeting with must also be considered. If I am meeting with someone who typically shows up 10 minutes late, even arriving at 12:59 p.m. may be suboptimal. However, if this person is usually early, I may waste less of her time if I show up at 12:50 rather than 12:59 p.m. On the other hand, if this is an important job interview, planning to arrive at 12:59 p.m. is foolhardy.

An example of unexpected change cost is completing a bid or proposal early, and then being blind-sided by clarifications released by the requestor. For example, professors who complete a grant proposal a month early might have to re-do work, or find they have done unnecessary work, after the funding agency releases addendums or responses to questions weeks or even days before the deadline. Strategic procrastination might mean the proposal is turned in hours before the deadline, but heaps of unnecessary work may be avoided since the work was completed after all the clarifications came in.

Similarly, I recall several times when I have worked ahead in a college course, only to find that other students complained or found an assignment too difficult, resulting in the professor scaling back the difficulty level for the assignment. Though doing extra work can be a learning experience, my time is very limited and I would have preferred to spend it elsewhere. Working ahead can easily make one a victim of unexpected change cost.

Strategic procrastination is a powerful tool to minimize unexpected change cost. As the 2015–16 President of Port Orange Toastmasters, club officers, members, and visitors from other clubs often emailed me requests and questions that I had already answered elsewhere, or could easily be found by Google search. Replying quickly to these emails would often beget more requests and waste even more of my time. However, sitting on these emails for 12–24 hours often allowed the problem to resolve itself—Toastmasters would look elsewhere for the information, find it, and send a second email saying they no longer needed help.

The change from “needing” help to no longer needing it is a state change that exemplifies unexpected change cost. While this state change can be brought about by answering the question or request, this not only wastes your time—it also discourages self-reliance. Who do you think the person-in-need is going to go to next time—Richard Thripp or Google search? Richard Thripp, of course! If I answer questions for the person-in-need several times before directing them to Let Me Google that For You, they will then be surprised, annoyed, and perhaps even angry when I refuse to continue being their gopher. The best solution is prevention. “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Refuse to be a gopher on the first request, not the nth request. Because I have a car, people without cars sometimes ask me for favors involving my car. “But you’re going to Orlando already!” Yes, but do I really want to have to leave a half-hour early to carpool, to arrive at your house and find you are not ready, to delay or suppress other plans or avenues, and to have these favors become an entitlement that is expected on an ongoing basis? Oh, what a low opinion you have of me!

Many college professors, particularly in the Psychology department at University of Central Florida, have a “3-before-me” policy, meaning they expect students to try three approaches to answering a question before contacting the professor. These professors won’t help the student unless he or she lists the three things he or she did in the email—for example, searching Google, searching the course modules on Webcourses (UCF’s LMS—learning management system), and consulting the index of the course textbook. While such policies may seem cruel, they accomplish two functions: encouraging self-reliance and preventing the professor’s time from being wasted on frivolities.

Approaching email with anything but strategic procrastination is a recipe for wasting tremendous amounts of time. If you don’t reply to emails, they often take care of themselves. Please look for a Dilbert comic about this. They are hilarious.

Working ahead of the pack often yields high unexpected change costs. Completing work after 50% of your peers complete it might be ideal. Then, the bugs are worked out. Questions are answered. Procedures are clarified. Is “the early bird gets the worm” true? Perhaps “the early bird gets screwed over” is more accurate? For example, many people who upgraded to Windows 10 in summer 2015, shortly after its release, got screwed over by an endless cycle of rebooting that made their PC completely unusable. This caused them to waste many hours and perhaps miss deadlines. Early adoption can lead to unexpected change cost. Strategic procrastination is the antidote.

Working ahead has its place. Delaying starting an exercise regimen or other beneficial habit until January 1 is folly—why not start now? However, when external factors are prominent, such as the whims and vicissitudes of individuals, teams, institutions, and chance, the risk of unexpected changes may be high. Working ahead might be the worst thing you could do. Put it off! Procrastinate strategically. Have patience. The problem might just take care if itself.

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