Monthly Archives: April 2013

Getting Started (well, sort of…)

In Defense of Procrastination Walters

I.

Have you ever:

  • neglected to thank someone for a gift or act of kindness for so long that you feared running into that person by accident?
  • felt simultaneously ashamed, enraged and mystified at your inability to get to work on an assignment with a deadline?
  • promised yourself a hundred different times that you would start (or stop) doing something the very next day, without ever actually starting (or stopping) it?

If you can relate to these kinds of experiences, well…. Welcome to the human race.

I’ve met very few people who are not bothered from time to time — some more frequently than others — by their inclination to procrastinate. I myself have reached the point on several occasions when I semi-seriously weighed the alternatives of admitting that I had not yet written an article I had promised to someone and throwing myself off the nearest bridge. It was, in fact, during an episode like that I first conceived the idea of writing about procrastination. I knew even then that I was not the only person in the world who suffered from it, but it was not until I began to do some research that I discovered how widespread the problem actually is.

The original focus of my exploration of the subject of procrastination was the development of a one-hour program for CBC’s long-running and excellent documentary radio series, Ideas. What I wanted to investigate was this: If so many people experience procrastination, fight it, try to live with it, find they cannot avoid it – if it is, in short, perhaps, a human inclination, something that has perhaps even evolved in us – can it be entirely bad? Might there not be a good side… even, perhaps, some benefits?

The Ideas program was several months in the making, and during that time almost everyone to whom I mentioned the project, which I had confidently named “In Defense of Procrastination” from the start, seemed eager to hear the program; a surprising number even volunteered to contribute to it. Everyone seemed to relate to problems with procrastination. They loved the idea that there might be some justification – better yet, more than one – that might help them live with themselves as procrastinators. They greeted with even more enthusiasm the prospect of acquiring solid arguments that might help them to defend themselves from the range of reactions (ranging from disapproval to rage) of the people with whom they lived and worked.

They were also, of course, keen to learn how to avoid ever getting themselves in a situation where they’d procrastinate again.

In addition to getting them into trouble with other people – or at least making them fearful that they would – their tendency to procrastinate evoked feelings in them, as it does in me and probably you as well, of guilt and pain. It made them feel as though they were lazy.

Granted, Thomas De Quincey said:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. (“On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” 1827)

But surely this was written tongue-in-cheek? It is not human nature, at least under normal, peaceable circumstances, to commit murder, or to steal. It is, in my experience, human nature to procrastinate.

(to be continued. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and responses.)

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Procrastination in the News (1)

In Defense of Procrastination Walters

The online journal Quartz has published an interesting article entitled “The Complete Guide to Procrastinating at Work,” although I do think its title somewhat overstates its content.

The author, Anna Codrea-Rado, offers eight points relating to procrastination, some of them intriguing (Joseph F. Ferrari, an expert in the field, says that there are two types of procrastinators – those who delay decisions and those who delay actions), some worrisome (it includes a link to an article that advises employers how to avoid hiring procrastinators), and some consoling (it suggests that maybe our procrastination tendencies have been instilled in us by the school system or other childhood circumstances and are not some gigantic personal failure after all).

Ms. Codrea-Rado asks, “Can procrastinating ever be a source of productivity?” and of course I would answer that question with a hearty affirmative – that is, in fact, the whole point of the book that I am (fairly soon) about to start constructing here before your eyes. However, I do take small issue with this apparent guidance:

The Creativity Research Journal studied the working habits of a particularly intelligent group of people, winners of the Intel Science Talent competition. They found the group procrastinated productively. Some used procrastination as a trigger for a helpful amount of stress needed to ignite positive action. Others saw it as a “thought incubator”: They put off making a decision because they wanted to fully process it before finding a solution.

The problem, as I see it, is that if you are delaying intentionally, you are not in fact procrastinating. There is a certain lack of power on the part of the person who is procrastinating, at least in my experience: When we are doing it, it has hold of us, rather than the other way around.

Although I did interview one professor, Dr. John Perry at Stanford, who has developed a whole protocol for “Structured Procrastination.” More on that later. (Or you can Google him, or even check out his book, if you are looking to kill a bit more time right now.)