Saturday, November 6, 2010

Tomorrow, Tomorrow! I Love Ya Tomorrow!

 Procrastination wastes time, costs money, produces guilt, and delays or negates benefits. So why do we do it?

It turns out that there is no definitive answer. James Surowiecki writes about procrastination in his article "Later" in The New Yorker (Nov 5/10) and includes some interesting theories from economists, psychologists, and philosophers.

There are different kinds of procrastination; perhaps that is why theories and explanations abound. We put off doing things we don't like to do - understandable enough. We also put off doing things we like and things that are good for us - not so understandable. Who hasn't avoided ironing, weeding, cleaning out the garage? But exercising (a biggie for me), contributing to retirement savings, calling friends to get together are either pleasurable or good for us in the long or short term, yet we avoid them too. What's the deal?

One theory is that we are not one self, but several selves with competing ideas, drives, and desires- the one who wants to do the dishes now and the one who wants to watch tv; the one who wants to exercise, and the one who wants to sit down and eat a whole cake. The different selves represent either short term or long term benefits.  It sounds good, but as Surowiecki points out, the short term self would pretty much always win, and nothing would ever get done.

One approach to overcoming procrastination has long been to impose outside pressure on ourselves or ask others to do so. So when we make a bet for a significant sum about losing weight or quitting smoking by a certain date, we are using external factors to help us get something done. A practical solution, but one that has to be re-negotiated for everything!

I especially like Surowiecki's example of the writer Victor Hugo, who wrote naked and asked his valet to hide his clothes until he had written a certain amount each day. (I tried for an image of Victor Hugo naked, but we'll have to settle for this one of him clothed, although after the images of "sexy" old men, it's for the best, I'm sure!)

Some philosophers think that procrastination is an existential problem. Maybe some of those things on the to-do list don't really have a point, in which case, some procrastination is a good thing. We clearly have to make the distinction, though, between meaningless cleaning of knicknacks and sending out the invitations for a child's wedding.

The one idea about procrastination that makes the most sense to me is one that isn't discussed in Surowiecki's article. Procrastination is a form of perfectionism - if you don't try, you can't fail or be less than perfect. I remember when I first heard that many years ago; it was a real eye-opener and actually helped me to procrastinate less.

Whatever the cause, whatever the activity, procrastination is one thing we can share. I don't know anyone - anyone who is not completely neurotic - who does not procrastinate at least a little. On second thought, those who seem never to procrastinate are procrastinating about getting help - after all, being perfect isn't normal.


P. M. Doolan said...

Great article Chris. I love that anecdote about Victor Hugo. A friend of mine who leads a psychology research team at the University of Zurich that is investigating procrastination (in industry) recommended this very funny video on youtube. Watching it is, of course, a form of procrastination:

P. M. Doolan said...

And our greatest form of procrastination - knowling that we are contributing to global climate change, but deciding to think of happier things, to still enjoy purselves, as if nothing is happening.

ChrisJ said...


I hadn't thought about the environment, but you are absolutely right.

Thanks for the video; I'll watch it later :)

Hels said...

If a person procrastinates in his own time, noone cares. If a person procrastinates in work time or family time or any place where other people are affected, they care deeply.

An example I have been dealing with for months comes to mind. One of my relatives had to repair and renovate his old home or buy a better home. His wife was miserable where she was. He dicked around for years and years, procrastinating endlessly himself and stopping his wife from acting decisively.

I think procrastination, where other people are involved, might be a form of passive-aggressive control.

ChrisJ said...


You're probably right about the passive-aggressive nature of procrastination. Making others wait, in any situation, is not a nice thing.

Judie said...

Chris, thanks for the kind comments. I am kind of laying low for the next few days. We are pretty much wiped out.

ChrisJ said...


I know. We almost lost our cat and I was a basket case. You are grieving a member of your family.

Ciss B said...

I also like the anecdote about Hugo, but really enjoyed Ellen's piece.

ChrisJ said...


The story about Hugo is funny, but what are we to do if we don't all have valets?