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Procrastination, the McClellan Problem, and You

October 31, 2014

 

General George B. “Little Mac” McClellan was the Union force commander during the Civil War. Beloved by his men, and a stickler for training, you’d think it might be him that we remember over Ulysses S Grant, former Union general and later the 18th President.

 

But Lincoln eventually made Grant the Northern army’s leader for a single, rather important reason: Grant was willing to engage the enemy. McClellan, despite an overwhelming number of troops and material, appeared to be allergic to battle.

 

McClellan’s strategy seemed to be waiting for just the right moment when the perfect nexus of geography, troop force, weather, and adequate supplies would present itself.  History tells us that early in the war it never did—or more importantly, that it never does.

 

Which brings me to glucose, the energy our brains and bodies run on. As a resource, it’s something our system tends to be stingy with.  Most of us expend energy only when we deem it absolutely necessary. Not a whole lot of us choose to jump about like small children, treating our bodies like human pogo sticks, and treating energy as the renewable resource it is.

 

Instead we marshal our energy, leaving plenty in reserve for a later battle, McClellan style. This strategy seems prudent; sitting on the couch watching TV at night leaves me plenty of energy to run out of the house if it should happen to catch fire, or take a couple of quick laps around the block—that is, if I weren’t so busy watching TV.

 

In what appears to be the body’s natural glucose conservation mode, we tend to emphasize the unforeseen event that we are saving our resources for, the Future Self experience, if you will.

 

Procrastination, on a biological level, the hoarding of glucose, might be our collective Achilles heel when it comes to getting things done, but when seen through the lens of self-preservation, it makes sense. Like the Boy Scout motto, “Always be prepared.”

 

However, before we raise our glasses in self-satisfaction to not getting things done, consider that there was a reason Lincoln replaced McClellan. Waiting as a central strategy produces zero results. So when we hold on to our reserves, there is a price to be paid.

 

It’s the Grants among us that carpe diem, Future Self be damned. And although you might question Grant’s wartime strategies, and his subsequent presidency, we know about the former shopkeeper from Galena, Illinois, precisely because he managed to get stuff done. Think about that iconic photo of him: war-weary, resolute, cigar clenched in his right hand, committed to the very end.

 

General George B. McClellan, on the other hand, was a man who prided himself on his ability to plan for just about any contingency that came along. Civil War historians will forever regard him as the prince in waiting.

 

Unfortunately, there is no cigar for the Prince of Procrastination.

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