There are people who plan vacations months in advance, down to the hotels they will stay in each night and the clothing they will bring. There are people who reserve a table at a restaurant weeks ahead and who book their next hair appointment while at the salon. And many people fill their social, cultural and athletic calendars well into the future.
I am not one of those people.
In late winter, I learned about a spiritual retreat/conference taking place in Colorado at the end of August. The organizers offered an early bird discount so I registered, aware that if I changed my mind or plans in the next few months, I’d only forfeit a small fee. While I wasn’t 100% sure I wanted to go, I knew that if I waited until I was sure, either the fee would have gone up or it would sell out. As I learned more about the event, I became more enthusiastic. But, I still hadn’t booked accommodations, which were additional. The organizers had reserved dormitory-style rooms on site which, while affordable, meant sharing space with 2-4 other people. They even created an online forum for finding roommates. If you’re gregarious, you might love the idea of a multi-night pajama party with strangers. The few times I tried that, even in cushier hotel settings, I ended up overstimulated and sleep deprived to the point where I couldn’t enjoy myself. I put off making a decision. Eventually, enough time passed that my hand was forced.
Was I going or not?
I looked into booking a dorm room for myself. The only ones left slept four and were more than I wanted to spend. I peeked at the roommate forum: by then, the planners had paired up so, even if I had been willing to share with one person, they might not have materialized. And, it being tourist season, it dawned on me that many of the surrounding hotels would likely be occupied. And, when I realized I could no longer get a refund, I slid down the slippery slope of scarcity thinking and landed in a mud puddle of misery
I took a deep breath and remembered that I’d been in this situation before. More often than not, solutions have materialized, despite the conventional wisdom that it’s “too late”, or all the “good” stuff is taken/reserved. I put on my possibility cap and searched on Craigslist for vacation rentals nearby. There was one room for rent in a private home, brokered by AirBnb, a short-term lodging service I used before. It was less than the cost of a bunk bed and available for the dates I needed. I Googled the location and discovered it’s within cycling distance of the venue. When it occurred to me I could get the outdoor exercise that often eludes me when I’m at a conference, I couldn’t believe my good fortune. As a bonus, I would not be hostage to the group meal plan; I could eat à la carte, either on site or elsewhere. In hindsight, this was the perfect arrangement for me yet I realized that I would not have come up with such an idea months before. At that time, I was thinking too dualistically: either I “should” immerse myself in the event and lodge there, or not go at all. Perhaps the pressure of a deadline helped me break out of the black-and-white box.
It turns out that what I call Last-minute-itis, and what others might refer to as procrastination, might be good for you. Such is the thesis of Frank Partnoy, author of “Wait: The Art and Science of Delay”. While I haven’t read the book yet, I was relieved to discover this interview with him on Smithsonian.com, and loved this line in particular:
“Historically, for human beings, procrastination has not been regarded as a bad thing. The Greeks and Romans generally regarded procrastination very highly. The wisest leaders embraced procrastination and would basically sit around and think and not do anything unless they absolutely had to.”
Alas, the Puritans wrecked that for Americans. But Partnoy says that the key to success is waiting until the last possible minute to make a decision. This means, if you have to make a decision in a year, do it on day 364. If you have a week to decide, wait until the last hour, etc. Have an hour to decide? Do so in minute 59. He argues that delaying itself is not bad, it’s how we manage it; in other words, he’s talking about active, rather than passive, procrastination. He even offers a suggestion for blind dating: wait until the very end of the lunch (or coffee) to ask yourself if you want to see the person again.
His thesis is the opposite of Malcolm Gladwell’s; in Blink, he advocates following your gut and making decisions quickly. In the dating world, that might mean rejecting a potential partner before you’ve even opened the menu. Apparently, in 2005, Mr. Gladwell was invited to address Lehman Brothers’ executives, who, after their president took to the Blink philosophy, “then made the worst snap decisions in the history of financial markets.”
The trick to transforming Last-minute-itis from an anxiety-stirring affliction into a productive tool is getting clarity around when the decision has to be made. In a day? A week? A month? In the meantime, don’t fret or agonize. For this conference, I didn’t set a precise date to make a final decision but relied on gut feel. Perhaps it’s time to establish clearer internal deadlines. And remember those uber planners? While I don’t imagine becoming like that, I’ve come to appreciate that they are the same people who cancel appointments and reservations, creating what feels like miraculous synchronicities and surprises for Last-minuters. Sometimes, not only does it pay to procrastinate, it’s also more thrilling.