Overcommitteed and the Art of Collaborative Procrastination

I’m overcommitteed. Most people I know are because most people I know are on many of the same committees. Usually, you can juggle them so that you don’t have to take on too much at once. It’s all in how selectively you practice your procrastination. Sometimes, like I’ve discovered this week, multiple committee commitments come due at once. That’s when you have to stop and ponder the dynamics of group procrastination. It’s not like you don’t know the projects are coming up. Probably you proposed them yourself before you spent a few months ignoring the fact that you were even on this committee.

First, in order to have a committee that finishes anything ahead of time, you need a taskmaster, a bully as it were. People easily forget the efficiency of bullies and remember only the unpleasantness. Therefore, you won’t often be on a committee with a take-charge bully. They just aren’t invited as often as nicer, less efficient people.

In the absence of a bully, you can have an efficient committee if you have a fairly even distribution of (a) ownership of ideas; (b) confidence in implementing ideas. If the committee is lopsided–some people not as opinionated and/or confident and others unwilling to act as bullies–you’ll never accomplish a thing. Either everyone has to be at nearly equal investment levels, or someone has to step up and take charge.

I’ve been thinking about this in light of Daniel Pink’s book Drive in which he talks about personality types with an inherent sense of purpose and motivation. I’ve realized that while I’m a highly motivated person who often plunges head first into creative projects for no obvious financial or professional gain, I can also procrastinate with the best of them. If you ask me why I’ve put off a task, I’ll probably say I’ve been busy, which would be absolutely true. I’m busy when I’m completing other tasks, though. I’m more likely to put it off if I don’t feel like the project is really mine.

I might spend a whole weekend redesigning my own personal blog just because it crossed my mind to do it, while at the same time putting off for a week or more posting one new piece of information to an organization site. Maybe I spent 25 hours on one and 5 minutes on the other, but it was easier to find the 25 hours because I wasn’t trying to guess what anyone else’s expectations might be.

On committees I’m always the same. If I don’t feel the project is fully my own, and I do feel that other people are very capable, I might put off my own part as long as possible. I think a lot of people work like this. I try to remember that when I am playing the take-charge role, as I sometimes do.

We’re taught to think of leadership as a state of being, as if a person is either a leader or a follower on some innate level. Maybe there are some people who are naturally meek within a group and others who are naturally domineering, but most people can be either (or anything in between) at varying times and in varying situations. People are more likely to take charge in their own comfort zones and in the company of people they do not view as authorities over them. They are more likely to wait for someone to tell them what to do when outside their comfort zones or when working with superiors.

Committees are often comprised of people who are supposed to be professional peers. Yet it’s impossible that they will all be at the same skill, knowledge, and confidence levels. Often it takes some time for the various members to take each other’s measure and to develop a sense of their own places within the group dynamic. Thus ensues a period of inevitable collaborative procrastination.

Nell Ann Pickett, my teacher, friend, and mentor, has often talked about the importance of professional socializing. I always assumed she just enjoyed a good conference reception and understood the power of networking. Socializing, though, can play an essential part in productivity. When people become comfortable with each other socially, they are also learning how to work together professionally. I think probably every committee should begin its work in the way Nell Ann would have you do it–having dinner together in the nicest place you can afford. I don’t say this jokingly. I don’t know anyone more productive than Nell Ann has been in her day.

When I find myself working with people I don’t know, I tend to only ask the pragmatic questions. What are our goals? What do you want me to do? That might provide the information I need, but it doesn’t provide the comfort level I need. I’ll end up putting off my part until I see what others have done. Meanwhile they are putting off their parts while they see what I have done. It would serve me better to just get to know my collaborators, but, well, I’m shy, you see.

Of course, none of this means I won’t still procrastinate if I know you well. Sometimes I really am just too busy to do what I’ve said I’ll do, but I’ll be on it soon enough. Really. I will be.

I’m just saying…

Committees need more beer summits (metaphorically speaking, of course).

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