Preparation 3 — Delaying When We Can’t Decline or Deliver

Preparation 3 — Delaying When We Can’t Decline or Deliver

This is part of a presently ongoing series about Preparation. Each post has been made more or less self-contained, and refers to other portions of the series and elsewhere when helpful. They can be read in any order, though they thematically still build on one another in sequence, and I recommend reading them from the beginning. To be notified when a new entry is released, and to receive instant notifications for any other updates on the site, please head here. Feel free to give me feedback on any of them as well, either in the comments below them, or by contacting me—particularly if there is something specific that should be addressed as the series progresses.

Delaying When We Won’t or Can’t Decline

I usually split our options of what to do when we can’t deliver1 into two because we won’t always have the option to decline2, or it isn’t always worth taking. In those cases, delaying is our only other option — if we’re not willing to deliver poorly for having been unprepared.

Always Delay for as Long as Possible, Even Indefinitely

Much like declining, how we can best delay depends on our reasons for delaying and the context we’re delaying in.

swirling-clockIf we simply need more time, for example, whether it be to further prepare, or recover from an illness, it’s best to delay for as long as we possibly can, preferably without any hard commitments on when we will deliver if appropriate. The latter is delaying infinitely because we’re delaying indefinitely.

In general, it’s best not to fail to meet or exceed expectations. Delaying is a renegotiation of expectations that’s already not preferable, and can turn further sour if we end up needing to renegotiate them again.

Don’t double delay, and certainly don’t triple delay.

Repeatedly delaying is a typical result of asking for an extra week when we need an extra month. We’re not very good at predicting the future. Everything of note takes longer than we think, then longer still. The “Planning Fallacy” is a fancier and authoritative sounding way of saying we’re all horrible at estimating how long things will take, whether or not we’ve done them before, and by a much wider margin any of us may be capable of fully acknowledging — even if we’re aware of and fully believe that very fact3.

Four common reasons we often delay that tend not to work out for us because we didn’t delay long enough are:

  1. We were procrastinating on or otherwise not prioritizing our preparation for a Rhetorical engagement, which usually happens again the second time if it was easy enough to get an extension by delaying. This is so common that most people reading this likely think I’m referring to them in their field or endeavor, but it’s unfortunately a habit most of us are now incentivized to build in grade school and stick to thereafter.
  2. We tried our best and made the fullest use of the time we had to prepare for an engagement–preparing by doing the right things in the right way–but it simply wasn’t enough time. poor-planningAs we delay things to get more time, we usually fall back into the trap of believing we can predict how long something will take us, despite now having a track record of complete failure in predicting our presently delayed endeavor. We either underestimate how much time we need to properly prepare for an engagement a second time, or we misuse the amount of time we made for ourselves by delaying because that’s something we can do when we’ve made the time available finite.
  3. Someone or something’s working against our best efforts. This one happens more often than we’d expect. A coworker might be sabotaging us by setting deadlines we can’t meet, evidence may ‘disappear’ for a case we’re working on, or our electronic devices either run amuck or eat things we needed to engage with our audience. No matter the case, forces often outside of our control are unexpectedly impeding us, so it stands to reason in delaying, we may be impeded again. To be clear, I’m not referring to having trouble with our computer while we’re on stage and making everyone sit there in awkward silence while we fiddle and curse at a machine. In plenty of those situations, it’s best to get over it and get on with it if at all possible, ideally not skipping a beat. Minor nuisances happen, and we do well not to let our audience dwell on them by dwelling on them ourselves. Not delaying for long enough in these situations is probably the worst of these three, because it involves placing a lot of trust in things we can’t always do something about if our initial reasons for delaying were beyond our reasonable control.
  4. Some combination of the above three, typically all of them. We didn’t use our preparation time well, we were wrong about how much time we needed to prepare, and the sky began falling as our engagement drew near. Then when we asked for more time, new or similar issues arose all at once, just as they had before. This happens more than any of them in isolation, which is another reason the best preparation is practice4, becoming good enough with Rhetoric that we can deal with any problem as it comes — even if part of the problem is us.

Even if we did have Olympian rationality5 to predict how long we’d need to prepare in an ideal and unchanging world, not everything is under our control. rolling-diceIf we’re delaying because we need time for someone else to deliver something to us, there’s always the chance they’ll either decline or delay on us as well, maybe even for the same reasons we delayed to begin with.

The honest answer to how long something will take is often “I don’t know, have no reasonable way of finding out, and that too may change after I begin.” In open ended situations like these, it’s wise to buy more time than we need by default to avoid defaulting on the time we’ve bought for ourselves a second time.

If we’re able, we can often deliver early within any extended period of time we’ve carved out for ourselves by delaying if we haven’t made a definite commitment on when to deliver. Sometimes we can move our delivery date up, even on things like appointments. This works in our favor by giving us all the time we need to prepare, while also letting us either beat the expectation we renegotiated for ourselves by delaying, or clear up an ambiguity for those involved when things weren’t set in stone. Both of these turn the initially troubling situation of our being so unprepared we needed to delay into a more positive one as it progresses. Through delaying, we switch out potentially letting people down or looking like an idiot for the preferred alternative being seen as delivering early through Rhetorical sleight of hand.

There are limitless circumstances when we should commit hard and soon to a definite time or time-frame when we’re delaying an existing commitment, like an event or concert with paying fans already in their seats. But if we’re delaying because we’re unprepared, it’s best to avoid that.

Don’t Develop a Reputation for Delaying

unreliableNo matter how good we get at it, we can’t make delaying a habit.

Unless everyone’s lives are genuinely brightened by our delaying — like postponing a high school lecture or performance review — be wary of delaying more than once, or developing a reputation for it, either with one party or across many. We can commit to a date we intend to deliver on in private to ourselves if we need the focus and motivation a deadline can provide, but if that’s the only reason we’re doing it, best to keep it to ourselves.

If we decline someone often enough, most reasonable people will at least respect the fact that we did. If we delay too much, however, they’ll feel as if we’re stringing them along or being insincere — even though inept is usually closer to the truth when we do.

Barring natural disaster and other appropriate reasons for delaying that are well known and accepted by everyone around, delaying endlessly is worse than declining despite feeling better in the moment. It’s harder to appreciate what’s wrong with it while we’re doing it, however, because the effects aren’t as acute, immediate, or tangible as turning someone down. time-is-valuableWe all organize our lives around our shared commitments together. We travel, make plans, reservations, and decline others along the way. Every appointment is an event, and has an opportunity cost to those attending it, not just those facilitating it. The more valuable our time is — which is likely to be high when in situations Rhetorically inclined and worth considering how prepared we are for them — the more costly it is to allot that time. Delaying too often breeds contempt, and starts to burn up both of our minds and wallets. Anyone that’s ever been stood up for anything can relate to that, which is exponentially worse when it happens in succession. Declining is always preferable to pissing someone off. We save our own energies in freeing up our own commitments and moving on as well.

maintaining-relationshipsDelaying is much easier to understand, but deceptively easy to pull off, which is why many of us delay when we should decline, lacking the sense or courage to call the whole thing off before it becomes worse than it already is.

How to Delay Well

With that in mind, the Rhetoric of delaying only differs from that of declining in that we need to take time and uncertainty into account when we do it. Much like before, the relationships of all involved are our highest priority, trying to balance keeping everyone as happy as we can with buying ourselves as much time as possible. That’s rarely as easy as it sounds if we’re in a position to be handling damage control for something we did or didn’t do. Erring on the side of buying ourselves more time is preferable to mucking everything up a second or third time, and giving us enough time to deal with unpredictable conditions that likely caused us to delay in the first place.

making-people-happyIdeally, we wouldn’t need to decline or delay, but in a pinch, we should now be better equipped to do either.

Having gone over how to give ourselves more time to prepare, it’s time we considered what preparation proper is in service to not needing to buy ourselves more time to prepare. We’ll begin by defining what preparation is6, then go into some common ways we screw up our opportunities to prepare, chiefly by over preparing7 and preparing poorly8. Finally, we’ll conclude with examining why the best preparation is practice4 before looking closer at how best to prepare for specific engagements — comparing and contrasting that with how we usually tend to9, and how best not to prepare9.

Footnotes, References, and Citations

  1. Preparation 1 — What to Do When We’re Not Prepared | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  2. Preparation 2 — Learning to Decline When We Can’t Deliver or Delay | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  3. Though it’s been stretched in all manner of different directions since, “The Planning Fallacy” was first introduced in: Kahneman, Daniel; Tversky, Amos. (1979). Intuitive Prediction: Biases and Corrective Procedures. (1979, 12th Issue of TIMS Studies in Management Science, Page 313–327). I wouldn’t call it a ‘fallacy’, and certainly not a ‘bias’, but we’d all have a hard time arguing against how bad we are at predicting how long something will take, and how confident we remain in our predictions despite that. 
  4. Preparation 11 — The Best Preparation Is Staying in Practice | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  5. Olympian Rationality is a concept opposed to Bounded Rationality, the former seeing us all as boundless in knowledge, skill, and ability like floating supercomputers behind glass, the latter recognizing our limitations and seeing them as inherent to everything we say, think, or do. It’s now most popularly used in works on economics to denote the belief that we’re not all that rational all of the time, and probably can’t be to the extent our theories on ourselves have tended to assume from time to time. This is a highly relevant concept in Rhetoric because it recognizes that we never take on a privileged position outside of the Rhetorical soups we’re all stewing in that is devoid of Rhetoric, and as I go to great lengths to argue in my work and next book, that stew is productive of what Serious work we actually do. For a brief examination of the concept as it relates to Rhetoric, which I cite entirely for its wonderful summaries of the concept and not necessarily anything else, see: Simons, Herbert W. The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry(1990 Book), a relevant excerpt of which can be found here — The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry – Herbert W. Simons – Google Books
  6. Preparation 4 — Preparation Defined | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  7. Preparation 6 — Being Over-Prepared | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  8. Preparation 7 — We Can and Do Prepare Poorly | Good Rhetor – All About Rhetoric 
  9. This will continue on in the Preparation Series of which this is a part, which I’ll have linked once they’re done and up. 
Series Navigation<< Preparation 2 — Learning to Decline When We Can’t Deliver or Delay--|--Preparation 4 — Preparation Defined >>
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Steven Rhyse has spent a great deal of time working in many colorful variations of Maker, Marketer, and Manager on a freelance and consulting basis, doing everything from editing to art on all manner of projects. His clients range from market leading companies and startups to small business owners and individuals. Designing, planning, and implementing new media solutions to business and marketing problems tend to be his primary roles, but he regularly makes use of his strong production and teaching background. Business, Entertainment, and Technology tend to be the industries he frequents most, often finding himself in the realms of Education and Health as well. He's also found great success as a private educator servicing all of the occupations and industries he just mentioned, among many others.

He enjoys learning, making, and teaching things. Though he works internationally, he's based in the Bay Area, trained and operating by the University of California, Berkeley. He's considered a leading authority on the topic of Rhetoric.
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