The case for putting stuff off

June 20, 2012: 9:36 AM ET

Procrastination is a vice, but delay? That's a tactic.

By Laura Vanderkam

FORTUNE -- Never put off for tomorrow what you can do today, the saying goes. Fortune favors the bold. But, in the interest of seeming decisive, do we sometimes act too fast?

From traders following the herd to politicians attempting damage control, "In most situations, we should take more time than we do. The longer we can wait, the better," says Frank Partnoy, author of the forthcoming book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay. In it, this professor of law and finance at the University of San Diego advocates "grabbing delay by the throat and using delay as a tool in your life."

A distinction must be drawn between putting things off and true procrastination. "Procrastination is weakness of will," says Tim Pychyl of Carleton College in Ottawa, Canada, who also runs the website procrastination.ca. "There's no virtue in it." Procrastination is when "I know what I ought to do and voluntarily don't do it, even though I know it will come back and bite me" -- because not doing it feels good in the moment. Think watching TV until midnight on April 14, even though you haven't done your taxes.

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But if time is ultimately limited, then sometimes "delay is just another variable that you need to take into account," says Partnoy. "We're always putting things off. That's our natural state -- to be doing some things and putting others off. What we should feel bad about is if we're being lazy, or doing the wrong things today or putting off the wrong things as well."

Here are four occasions when putting something off might be the smart thing to do.

1. You need more information.

Sure, some projects get stuck in the research phase forever. But it's not worth starting to write a report if you're missing details that will shape its whole structure. Partnoy studied journalists as part of his research. Many said, "Oh, I have this terrible problem with procrastination," he recounts. But, in fact, they knew exactly how much time it took them to write an 800-word story, and they were trying to get the right quotes and figures right up to that amount of time before a deadline. "It's part of your professional skill," says Partnoy. "You develop this intuition that the right thing to do is not to start writing right away. You don't know enough, so you take some time to observe and process and talk to people."

2. You think the problem might go away.

While this sounds like wishful thinking, managers soon learn that the majority of problems direct-reports mention to them will either go away with time, or can be solved without you actively investing your scarce time in them. Putting off proposing a solution can be a way of seeing how important a problem is, or of encouraging a mid-level manager to put out her own fires.

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3. You have more important things to do.

Putting off the laundry because your teenager needs support after a bullying incident isn't procrastination. It means you have priorities.

4. You suspect the action you're putting off is not the right thing to do.

When you truly do not want to do something, it may be the universe's way of telling you that you're meant to be doing something else. Examples might include putting off writing a check to invest in a friend's enterprise that you suspect has a flawed business plan, or even delaying an anticipated marriage proposal.

How do you tell the difference between laziness and deepening self-knowledge? "Just asking the question, 'Why am I putting this off, what is happening in my brain, and what is the rationale for not wanting to do it now?' That is often enough of a tool," says Partnoy. Be honest, and you'll see the line between procrastination and being smart.

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