Why do today what could be done tomorrow (or the next day)?
“Time management” has been all the rage for the past few decades, with business experts extolling the advantages of high productivity and a “Do it now” philosophy. But in fact, putting things off, or rather obsessing about putting things off, has been part of the human condition for millennia.
Maria Konnikova, writing in The New Yorker, looks at the phenomenon of procrastination and how we can overcome it, or at least try to overcome it. Her article has been edited for space.
Want to hear my favorite procrastination joke?
I’ll tell you later. Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, has saved up countless such lines while researching the nature of procrastination. Formerly a terrible procrastinator himself, he figures a dose of humor can’t hurt. It’s certainly better than continually building up anxiety about work you should do now but put off until later and later, as your chances of completing it grow ever slimmer, and the consequences loom ever larger.
The tendency to procrastinate dates back to the very beginnings of civilization. As early as 1400 B.C., Steel told me, ancient Egyptians were struggling with basic time management. “Friend, stop putting off work and allow us to go home in good time,” read some hieroglyphs, translated by the University of Toronto Egyptologist Ronald Leprohon. Six hundred years later, in 800 B.C., the early Greek poet Hesiod voiced a similar feeling, warning us not to “put your work off till tomorrow and the day after, for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work.” In 44 B.C., Cicero deemed “slowness and procrastination” always “hateful.”
The sentiment survived intact through more recent times. In 1751, Samuel Johnson remarked, “The folly of allowing ourselves to delay what we know cannot be finally escaped is one of the general weaknesses which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or lesser degree in every mind; even they who most steadily withstand it find it, if not the most violent, the most pertinacious of their passions, always renewing its attacks, and, though often vanquished, never destroyed.” He concluded that it was “natural,” if not praiseworthy or desirable, “to have particular regard to the time present.”
The twenty-first century seems no different. Students procrastinate instead of doing their schoolwork. In one study, thirty-two per cent of surveyed university students were found to be severe procrastinators—meaning that their procrastination had gone from being an annoyance to an actual problem—while only one per cent claimed that they never procrastinated at all. Employees procrastinate instead of taking care of their office tasks. The average employee, one survey found, spends about an hour and twenty minutes each day putting off work; that time, in turn, translates to a loss of about nine thousand dollars per worker per year. In a study conducted in 2007, about a quarter of surveyed adults reported that procrastination was one of their defining personality traits. In addition to Americans, the sample included Europeans, South Americans, and Australians.
Steel uses timed ten-minute sessions to get started on tasks that he doesn’t quite want to do. “The problem with a goal we’re avoiding is that we’ve already built into our minds how awful it’s going to be,” he said. “So it’s like diving into a cold pool: the first few seconds are terrible, but soon it feels great.” So, set the goal of working on a task for a short time, and then reassess. Often, you’ll be able to stay on task once you’ve overcome that initial jump. “You don’t say, ‘I am going to write.’ You say, ‘I will complete four hundred words by two o’clock,’ ” Steel says. “The more specific, the more powerful. That’s what gets us going.”
Steel also points to an Android app that makes it more difficult for people to access the games on their phones. Steel’s own team has designed a phone and desktop app that adds a simple delay mechanism to distracting programs; when you click on, say, Candy Crush, your phone gives you a countdown that asks if you really want to go to the game, instead of taking you there directly. That little delay is often enough, Steel has found, to make us reconsider a favorite procrastination tactic.
Of course, if you are an excessive procrastinator you may be unlikely to install such a program. “The ironic thing is that procrastinators put off dealing with their procrastination,” Steel said. So I have an idea: instead of doing whatever you’re supposed to be doing right now, take a look at Steel’s online procrastination test. There are few things we like more than online personality assessments—and this one might even help you beat your procrastination. Just you wait and see.