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!
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.