I read an article recently in the Annals of Irreproducible Research about productive procrastination. The author's thesis was that it is possible to procrastinate productively, by simply ensuring that whenever you are avoiding doing one thing, you are doing something else useful. This is an excellent scheme, and indeed as I write this, I am avoiding writing a help file, writing some AI for a game, and reading a manual.

But there is another unexplored area of procrastination into which I received insight while working in technical support: making other people's procrastination work for you.

When somebody calls with a problem, they always want it fixed now, now, now! But you've always got a dozen other things on your plate, and anyway, you don't feel much like helping them with their problem, because they're a putz. But if you blow them off for a few days, they'll think that you suck. The secret is to put the ball back in their court. Spend a few minutes talking with them about their problem, and walk them through a few tests. It doesn't matter if you have absolutely no clue as to where to look for problems on this particular piece of equipment; you're only doing it to make them feel like you're paying attention to their problem. Have them crack the case open, set the multimeter to 20V DC, and give them a few spots on the board to test. "5.01V? Yes, that's pretty good. OK, now move the red probe..."

Next, and this is the important bit, you give them some tests to do "off-line". Set up something that should take about half an hour, make sure it's absolutely clear what it is you want them to do, and tell them to call you back in an hour or two when they've done it.

Then, a couple of days later, call them back and ask if they've done it yet.

When the customer was waiting for you, their problem was really important, and they were calling you twice a day demanding to know when you were going to fix it. But now, somehow, they can't seem to find half an hour to do the testing you want. So now you can explain to them that you can't take any more steps towards solving their problem until they've done the testing necessary to figure out what the problem is, and get them to promise to do the testing soon. And now, instead of the customer waiting impatiently on you, and thinking about how much you suck, suddenly, they're waiting on themselves. And thinking about how much they suck. And they think about how attentive and responsive you've been, and about how they've done diddly squat, and in their heart of hearts, they compare themselves to you, and they realise that compared to them, you're a demigod.

The key point that makes it all work is that everybody procrastinates, and everybody feels bad about it; but not everybody realises that everybody else procrastinates. You can use this against them to make them think that they procrastinate and that you don't; thus making them think that you are far superior to them.

A couple of days after that, you call and ask again, find they still haven't done the testing, extract another promise from them that they'll do it Real Soon Now, hang up, laugh, and cross 'em off your list.