Procrastination: The Thief of Time

Cat 243 Dover by Mary Jo

I’ve been thinking about writing a piece on procrastination for a while, but hadn’t gotten around to it….

Okay, I couldn’t resist saying that. <G>  In fact, while I have been a serious practitioner of procrastination for as long as I can remember, I never thought much about it, other than experiencing the usual guilt.

Then I read an article from a recent New Yorker called “Later.”  Author James New Yorker Surowiecki reviewed a book of essays called The Thief of Time, including broader information on the subject as well as applying it to himself. 

The Quintessential Problem?

Procrastination has always been with us, but corrosive guilt about it is more of a modern phenomenon.  Another vestige of our Puritan heritage, probably.  We’re supposed to be working, and avoiding work feels like a sign of weak moral fiber.  As the article says, “it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem.”

The interesting essence of procrastination is that it’s “doing something against one’s own better judgment.”  We know we have to finish that term paper, calculate and file those taxes, finish that book.  We want those good things to happen.

Man in Hammock And yet—we avoid working on things even though we know we’ll pay for the procrastination.  So we don’t do something we should, even though we know such behavior will make us unhappy.

And we don’t even always procrastinate to do something that’s fun!  When you start organizing your sock drawer, you’re probably avoiding something bigSocks  time. 


The Dangers of Self-Employment

Those who must structure their own time may be particularly prone to procrastination.  Take academics.  Finishing a PhD dissertation is a monstrously difficult undertaking, so much so that there is a term for people who have taken all the courses, done all the research, but not done the dissertation: ABD = All But Dissertation.  Even my brother-in-law, a professor and one of the most cerebral and intelligent people I know, said that his dissertation was heavy gong. 

Suroweicki’s article discusses several reasons why we procrastinate.  Goals, for example.  I really do want to read War and Peace, but right now, I am going to read the new JAK Arcane novel.  I’ll read War and Peace over vacation when I have lots of time to sink into it.  But vacation comes, and the new Sharon Shinn is out, and I want to read that instead. 

Multiple Selves

A big reason we procrastinate is that there are multiple selves within us, and they often have conflicting goals.  There are different terminologies for this, such as Freud’s classic Id, Ego, and Superego, but suffice it to say that the self that wants to finish the dissertation and read War and Peace is more interested in long term goals, while the self who goes for the fun book is more into short term gratification. 

What you want now is probably what you’ll also want in the future.  In other words, Chocolate cake you want to lose weight, but you’ll start the diet tomorrow, right now there’s a chocolate cake in the office break room.  Come tomorrow, and there are donuts, the diet can be started on Monday, always better to start a project on Monday.

Obviously, this can go on indefinitely.  <G> 

We Need More Time!

Procrastination is related to a concept that I recognized when Ellen Goodman, one of my favorite columnists, articulated it: the unconscious belief that in the future, we’ll have more time.  I’m rushed and harried and behind on deadline and may not get my Christmas cards out this year, but NEXT YEAR WILL BE DIFFERENT

Next year I’ll get into the current book sooner, schedule my time better, have my Christmas cards posted and my holiday shopping done by December 1st. Or at least by December 15th.   (I procrastinate even in my daydreams.  <G>)  Yes, next year I’ll be better organized and everything will be different. 

Of course, next year is probably not different. <g>  One reason is, yes, procrastination.  Another is that we tend to think of the ideal when we schedule projects.  We’re going to sit down and get this book done in six months because we’ve written other books in six months. 

Cat What we tend to overlook is the normal hassles of everyday life:  the cold caught in Croatia, the car that breaks down, the cat needs to be taken to the vet, the furnace fails at the first cold snap.  These things aren’t specifically predictable, but some kinds of delay will invariably happen and we’ll get behind on the project.

Solutions, or at least, Coping Mechanisms

So how can we deal with procrastination? 

One solution is bargaining.  You may want to read a fun book now, and you will want to just as much in the future. So you tell yourself that after you read War and Peace, you’ll read fun books only for the next six months.  This may work for some people, but the fun loving self often has the upper hand here.

Another solution is to raise the stakes.  If you go to Weight Watchers or make a bet with a friend, you are setting yourself up to succeed or fail in the eyes of others.  At Weight Watchers, I understand there are public weighings, plus a sympathetic peer group to help keep you on track.  If you make a bet with a friend and lose, it may cost you money. 

If you continuously put something off, eventually you may want to consider whether it actually needs doing.  Most of us have zillions of things we feel we “ought” to do, but some of them probably deserve to be dropped altogether.  Why waste guilt on an undeserving subject??  Maybe you don't really want to read War and Peace–you wWar and Peaceant to have read it, which is not at all the same thing.

A good solution is to set up artificial deadlines or constraints.  Surowiecki’s article cites a study done by MIT psychologist David Ariely, who assigned a class three papers that had to be done during the semester.  The students had the choice of delivering all three at the end of the term, or setting separate deadlines for each, spaced out through the semester.  They didn’t get extra credit for delivering early, but if they set an earlier deadline and missed it, their grades would be docked.

Yet even though setting earlier deadlines risked a penalty, the majority of students choose to do that.  They knew that they were unlikely to start early on all three and deliver them at semester’s end, so they chose external constraints to force them to do what they knew needed to be done. 

Setting such constraints is called self-binding, and it can be done in numerous ways.  One that I LOVE I learned about from Surowiecki.  A PhD student in North Carolina (see “dissertation,” above <g>) wrote a piece of software that cuts off your internet access for anywhere from 15 minutes to 8 hours. 

The software is called Freedom and can be downloaded in either a trial version or bought outright for ten bucks.  (Despite the site name, it works fine for PCs as well as Macs.)  You set the time you want to be offline, and the program dutifully blocks access.  (If you really, suddenly do need to get online, you can clear the program by rebooting.)

Given that the internet is an invention of the devil and the all-time biggest timewaster there is, this is a fabulous invention.  If you read the testimonials, you’ll see names you recognize.  LOTS of writers.  <g> 

So that’s a quick riff about procrastination.  If the subject interests you, be sure to Thief of Time read James Surowiecki’s article—there’s lots of fascinating stuff in there.

Or you can buy The Thief of Time itself, for it's surely full of marvelous insights.  It costs $65, though.  Maybe I’ll get it later…  <G>

So—are you a procrastinator?  Sometimes, not always?  What tasks cause you to use a toothbrush to clean grout as an avoidance technique?  And do you have any good coping strategies that you would be willing to share?

Mary Jo, who is amazed that she has ever managed to finish a book, much less dozens.

PS: Thanks to Anne Gracie for pointing out that I'd mispelled James Surowiecki's name wrong when I originally posted.  That is now corrected.