Procrastination

Not doing things at the time they ought be done seems to be a known problem for as long as people are able to plan. They know the consequences and knowingly decide to delay the inevitable. When do you encounter such situations in your professional life? How can they be improved?

Deadline

is the trump card that can be played every time someone wants to put off a task that hinders but not completely stops the process. I’ve seen it often when talking about refactorings or automated tests – “We can do it when we have time”. When the situation does not permit changes to the schedule it is a valid and appropriate decision to delay them until later. Delaying again and again is not. To improve the situation it is necessary that everyone in the chain in the development process from the developer to the customer[1] knows the consequences of accumulating technical debt. In most cases they are just ignorant of the fact or of its long term impact and will change the course of action when “enlightened”. The next step should be the reduction of workload to catch up and improve the product in time.

Fear

of failure or fear of consequences is also often the reason someone delays important tasks. The fear can be fostered through misinterpreted quality standards. A little checklist to keep in mind:

  • Breaking the build is not bad. It is bad to let it stay broken.
  • Checkstyle is not everything. There are situations when people are “more right”. Dogmatism is unhealthy anyway.
  • Man is not a machine. Nobody can be expected to work full time without making mistakes. Even hardware fails.

To improve this situation it is necessary to revise the values and make sure that the consequences are reduced to the level where they are noticeable but not hurting or even crippling. This way any person can make decisions – even wrong ones – without anticipation of immediate punishment. Not all working environments are that toxic. Sometimes the person is just inexperienced or has low self esteem. Here teaching, leading by example and encouragement to take responsibility helps a lot.

Boredom

is like torture for conscious mind. A boring task can be endured once, but doing it every day is very unconfortable. Fortunately when something can be predicted, it can be automated. Cron jobs, continuous integration systems or small round vacuum cleaners serve as example. Even our brain automates processes by pushing them into the subconscious mind – this way we are able to speak and walk at the same time without any problems. Some bureaucratic routines however, like time tracking, cannot be automated fully and require our intervention at regular intervals. The natural behaviour to increase the intervals between the tasks or forgetting them ultimately leads to the situation comparable to technical debt where a huge amount of undone tasks grinds a system to a halt. Since most companies require some amount of bureaucracy to function, it is not possible to completely optimize it away. But it is possible to reduce the chance to forget a task. As example we are always wearing a real cowboy hut when we work in a production environment. Only when we are done, we can put it off. To make boring tasks more attractive the idea of continuous integration game can be used. In time tracking context the user would get points for booking time at the same working day and less for booking at the next day.

Conclusion
Simplified the equation is: pressure * negative feelings towards the task = danger of procrastination. To improve the situation, lower the factors!

[1] Especially in product development: Customer is not the one who buys or uses the product, but the one who pays the developer to make the product and later wants to make money with it.

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