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In Praise of Procrastination 118

Posted by Soulskill
from the finally-getting-around-to-posting-this dept.
Ponca City writes "Every year, millions of Americans pay needless penalties because they don't file their taxes on time, forgo huge amounts of money in matching 401(k) contributions because they never get around to signing up for a retirement plan, and risk blindness from glaucoma because they don't use their eyedrops regularly. James Surowiecki writes that procrastination is a basic human impulse, a peculiar irrationality stemming from our relationship to time — in particular, from a tendency that economists call 'hyperbolic discounting,' the ability to make rational choices when they're thinking about the future, but, as a future event gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. Game theorist Thomas Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves a collection of competing selves, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control, where one represents your short-term interests (having fun, putting off work, and so on), while another represents your long-term goals. Philosopher Mark Kingwell puts it in existential terms: 'Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.'"
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In Praise of Procrastination

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  • by shawb (16347) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @02:22PM (#34148160)
    I meant to get first post, but something more important came up.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      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. -- Thomas De Quicey

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        And before your know it, he's quoting some obscure English drug addict on Slashdot.

    • by vlueboy (1799360)

      I meant to get first post, but something more important came up.

      Amateur. Real procrastinators always go for the elusive last post!

    • by dalemay (763931)
      I have been meaning to write "I Love YOU Ponca City" for awhile now, cause I live 20 miles east of him in Bartlesville, OK but always just put it off. Now I can cross this off my list of things to do!
    • by dalemay (763931)
      From 2009 Why I Enjoy Writing for Slashdot I grew up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, a very unusual city in America's heartland which in the 1950's happened to be both the corporate headquarters for Continental Oil Company (Conoco) and also the center for all of Conoco's Research and Development .[9] With over 600 Ph.d's. living in a city of 25,000, Ponca City was more like a university town where knowledge and learning was revered by highly educated parents who insisted on a first class educational system for the
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I bookmarked the article so I can read it later.

    • by icebike (68054) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:05PM (#34148366)

      An like so much of procrastination, it will probably not be necessary to read it later because much better articles will come along, or the theory will be completely debunked, or its fleeting (and perceived) importance will vanish.

      Procrastination is a learned workload management technique. People learn that the demands placed upon them by parents, society, or physical environment, can often be avoided just by waiting it out.

      Every day you put off picking up your toys as a child is one more day you don't have to. Every day you avoid re-thatching the roof of your grass shack is another day to hunt and gather.

      Many, if not most, "penalties" are simply nulled out with the passage of time. So rather than being irrational, this is a perfectly normal rational, learned workload management technique.

      The brilliance of an intelligent species is the avoidance of unnecessary waste of energy and time on problems that solve themselves, while focusing on goals that really matter, and which will not solve themselves.

      Actual penalties endured due to procrastination are failures of risk management skills, not some imaginary "irrational relationship to time".

      • by Nursie (632944) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:17PM (#34148418)

        And don't forget the number of times that there are no penalties to avoid at all, because it turns out that the activity was unnecessary.

        Yeah, I'm looking at you, work. The number of times it turns out that someone else has already done something, often even before I'm assigned a task, well, it pays to procrastinate.

        • And don't forget the number of times that there are no penalties to avoid at all, because it turns out that the activity was unnecessary.

          Yeah, I'm looking at you, work. The number of times it turns out that someone else has already done something, often even before I'm assigned a task, well, it pays to procrastinate.

          Yeah, procrastination is actually my form of triage. If the deadline is months away, in the interim it may go away altogether, or at the very least the specifics and deliverables will change. Any work I do right now is generally a waste of effort, aside from looking like a Good Boy to the boss. And truthfully that does get figured in. Part of assessing the importance of a project is gauging the boss's enthusiasm. If we're talking about a metric that will make the boss look good, I prioritize it

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by kvezach (1199717)
          You may be closer to the answer than you think. One of the proposed explanations for hyperbolic discounting is taking the uncertainty of risk into account [wikimedia.org]. Within certain assumptions, if you don't know the actual risk level, or how likely it is you need to do the work, hyperbolic discounting becomes consistent.
      • by Anonymous Coward

        When talking about procrastination, we must either talk about the healthy or unhealthy procrastination. Every single person procrastinates to some degree and for most it is indees exactly as you say (negative effects tend to be short lived or minor and there are many positive side effects). Procrastination can also be rather ugly psychological problem, in which case that doesn't quite hold true.

        Anecdote 1

        When I was at my first job (18 years old, straight out of high school and landed in a great job. I was

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by fbjon (692006)
          Well hey, you're definitely not the only one around here with this problem. I basically feel bad about procrastinating, so to avoid that feeling I put it out of my mind, obviously leading to some more procrastination!

          Cue Benny Hill music here...

          The upshot is that it only applies to certain areas. In other areas I'm still procrastinating some (as normal), but always finishing before deadline and with very good results to boot. My problem is transferring this skill between areas of work.

          I think having a speci

        • About your anecdote 1, obviously there's bad management. That's what project managers are for, you know, to keep track of to-dos and if any of them require contacting the client. Arranging meetings, etc. Have you arranged that meeting yet? No? Well do it, now. How many projects are there? Does the company have a list of todos for each project? You know, like using Microsoft Project (TM) to keep track of each one of them?

          The company I currently work for has weekly meetings for each single project. Don't get

      • by kdemetter (965669)

        The reminds me of time managment : you divide your workload into 4 sections :

        - important and urgent tasks : you do them right away
        - important tasks , that are not urgent : you do them when you have some time in between
        - urgent tasks , which are not important : you delegate to someone else
        - unimportant , non urgent tasks : you leave them , they will solve themselves.

  • my genes didn't let me finish homework
  • Third (Score:1, Redundant)

    by Veggiesama (1203068)

    Third post!

    Think I'm gonna go take a nap...

  • by lanceran (1575541) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @02:31PM (#34148198)
    I've been fighting procrastination for several years, and I am sure many have and still are. The one(and seemingly only) solution that I have found is to change your entire attitude towards your life. Procrastination arises from your mental extrapolation of how long a certain task will do and how many other small sub-tasks it will include. This line of thinking is most likely to overwhelm you and stop you right in you tracks("well, just look how much there's still to do, i'd rather do it later, when i am not as busy"). This is, at least for me, is the source of laziness. The right way to approach things is not to think about the future AT ALL, it is hard, but possible. Living in the moment and doing what excites you at one particular moment in time still somehow accomplishes the task at hand, and you don't spend your time thinking about it as a bunch of small sub-tasks. Think of it as writing a 50 page essay. You don't just sit down and start thinking "oh I have to write a 50 page essay, look at how much planning i have to do before it", when to actually do it, all you have to do is just separate it in sections based on topics that it covers, sit down and start writing in said section sentence by sentence. Different approach, same result. This advice, my fellow geeks, also applies to interaction with opposite sex. "Oh no, i might say something, and then she might say something and i'll ruin everything so i shouldn't say anything at all." - Bad. "I feel like saying something to her right now, I should say it." - Good.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 06, 2010 @02:46PM (#34148296)
      tl;dr
    • by Dachannien (617929) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:02PM (#34148362)

      I'm not convinced that the "live in the moment" attitude really works for getting large projects done, though. At least not for me. You're right that breaking down a project into its component tasks is helpful for avoiding that "crushing weight" feeling that scares me off from working on a large project, but doing what excites me right now tends to lead to me doing fun stuff instead of getting work done.

      The problem, I think, arises when none of those little sub-tasks has any specific reward associated with it. So, you know that you can easily do part 1 of a 27-part project, but you also know that when you finish part 1, you won't really feel any closer to being done than you did with 0 parts done. With no reward - not even a sense of accomplishment - for these individual tasks, the call of fun non-work-related activities grows more seductive.

      The key for me has always been to put myself in a situation where the fun non-work-related activities are unavailable. That doesn't work out well for getting stuff done around the house, since all my fun stuff is there, but it works a lot better for my job.

      • Maybe that's the true trick with test-driven programming: Each single test which no longer fails is a reward.

    • Re: (Score:1, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I've been fighting procrastination for several years

      I used to hate procrastination but then ran across the concept that, for a programmer, procrastination is a virtue (perhaps Scott Meyers in MEFC++).

      The thinking is roughly along the lines of "don't build what you don't need"... sometimes you end up never needing it.

      Now I embrace procrastination as a technique to manage priorities.

    • "I feel like saying something to her right now, I should say it."

      *Uuuuh, hey, babe, wanna get laid?

      D'oh!

      • by lanceran (1575541)

        "I feel like saying something to her right now, I should say it."

        *Uuuuh, hey, babe, wanna get laid?

        D'oh!

        Obviously, you don't come up to a hot girl on the street and ask her to have sex with you. If you want to do that, you're obviously insane(or very confident). Instead, ask yourself not what you want to get(sex that is), but what you want to say when you come up to her. I highly doubt that you'll come up with "do you want to have sex?". I hope you're getting my point.

        The right way to approach things is not to think about the future AT ALL, it is hard, but possible.

        AT ALL, means AT ALL. Your D'oh means that you're trying to predict the future again.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Nahor (41537)

      "I feel like saying something to her right now, I should say it." - Good.

      "I want to have sex with you" - Yeah, I'm sure it will work out well.

      Any present actions have future consequences. Not thinking of the future means you ignore the consequences. That can't be a good thin.
      As in pretty much everything in life, moderation is key. Don't over-think things that you end up never doing anything. But you still need to think things a bit. ("There is a time for thinking, and there is a time of acting")

      The other reason for over-thinking is negative target fixation [wikipedia.org] where one focuses too

    • by sheehaje (240093)

      Nike already summarized your post: Just Do It

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Getting Things Done, by David Allen [barnesandnoble.com] takes an approach that sounds compatible with what you're saying.

      His idea is to offload executive functioning to your reminder system, which dispenses atomic work units that don't have prerequisites. For example, the sort of task you'd put in your reminder system is not "do taxes" or even "do schedule A", it would be more like "find mileage records and add up volunteer mileage".

      Then, don't think about all the other things you have to do while you're totaling up mileage re

      • The problem with this is, when you're finished splitting up your tasks into those small units, you'll probably find that you've used up all the time you had for doing the work ...

        • by Jedi Alec (258881)

          If splitting up a complex system into simple base components is that difficult and takes that much time, you're probably better off hiring someone to do your taxes for you anyway.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by juxtaposter (725712)
      One cost of living in the moment is it creates a tyranny of the moment. “I must do this now.” As the person who multi tasks work, home and care, I need to prioritize and sometimes avoid side tracks of what excites. That said, I am still happier with less procrastination. Three tricks that work for me: 1. When stalled with details, keep moving anyway. “Do something easy.” 2. When wanting quit, nibble. “Do one more thing” 3. When thinking of a trivial task for a thir
      • by lanceran (1575541)
        Tyranny of the moment only seems like a bad thing if you choose to do something bad at that moment. You see, if you'll go from a moment to a moment choosing to do something interesting or exciting, than these moment will add up and you will always be doing something interesting or exciting, resulting in you always finding yourself interested in your activities. This way, tasks don't even feel like "tasks". If you follow this direction, you may find doing something entirely different with your life, compared
    • by turing_m (1030530) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @06:01PM (#34149420)

      The one(and seemingly only) solution that I have found is to change your entire attitude towards your life.

      I look at things a bit differently, and it mostly works for me. I see the set of things that I could do as each having a different level of addictiveness. Together they arrange themselves in a pecking order. Whatever is available at the top of the list I tend to do. At the same time, deep down, I KNOW exactly what I should be doing.

      The key for me is to remove the activities from contention that have addictiveness above the level of what I know I should be doing. As long as it takes X amount of time to get a particular fix, I don't get instant gratification. Instant gratification works best to increase addictiveness - increase the minimum delay and work necessary to get the payoff and that effort becomes something that can itself be procrastinated (coupled with the fact that you KNOW you shouldn't be doing that). And after a while the things you were addicted to don't have the same pull.

      Which leads me to another observation: there is a different pecking order in terms of the potential maximum level of addictiveness versus the current level of addictiveness. e.g. If I haven't played $GAME in a month, there is virtually no pull. But I know that if I were to play $GAME now for a few hours, I would feel more compelled to do that than say, post to slashdot. This will last for a few days. If I play $GAME for a week, I will suffer withdrawal symptoms and be prone to relapses for weeks after. I've come to realize that there are certain activities that are like crack to me in terms of out-prioritizing other things, and they need to be out of my life.

      Some things I don't even have to try in order to know how addictive they are. From everything that I can see, MMORPGs are the opium dens of the 21st century. They are only cheap if money is your only metric of how much they cost you. I will never try them for the same reasons I will never try any cocaine, meth or heroin.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Bigjeff5 (1143585)

      Think of it as writing a 50 page essay. You don't just sit down and start thinking "oh I have to write a 50 page essay, look at how much planning i have to do before it"

      I do.

      That's why I don't write 50 page essays.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Hatta (162192)

      Procrastination arises from your mental extrapolation of how long a certain task will do and how many other small sub-tasks it will include. This line of thinking is most likely to overwhelm you and stop you right in you tracks("well, just look how much there's still to do, i'd rather do it later, when i am not as busy"). This is, at least for me, is the source of laziness.

      Interesting, but that's not consistent with my experience. I'm a lot more likely to procrastinate when I have less work to do, because

  • I can spend less time rationalizing my laziness, and more time wasting my life! Thanks, Slashdot!

  • But regarding why we do anything at all...

    It's just the way we are. We are here (survived evolution) because we do stuff.
    i.e. We are animals with lots of sensors and information processing, so we
    perceive and model the surrounding world, and move ourselves so we minimize
    threats and maximize opportunities to gain survival-enhancing resources.

    So it's built into us to do things rather than lie around.
    What those things are doesn't particularly matter, as long as enough of us
    are doing things that help them surviv

    • by baffled (1034554)
      Evolution is easy enough to comprehend. You could say the reason for anything related to humans is because of evolution.. Just because evolution happened doesn't make it the answer to 'why'.. Then again, one could argue causation is only an opinion dependent on your take of the question.
  • Mark Kingwell was one of my philosophy professors at the University of Toronto. I admire his work and think that he is an amazing lecturer. He's published a lot of books on happiness and better living through a philosophical perspective.

    He's in his late-40s I think, and he's pretty in touch with current issues. The article doesn't do him and his views enough justice. If you want to learn more about his views, there's a list of his books on his entry on Wikipedia [wikipedia.org].

    For what it's worth, I think what he's trying

  • Could you simply not state the obvious, "People do not want to do boring shit"?
  • I'll post content later. Or not.
  • Tradeoffs (Score:4, Insightful)

    by emt377 (610337) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:16PM (#34148416)

    I think most people would happily trade 10% of their salary for 10% more vacation (5 more weeks). We in the U.S. work way too much and live too little.

    As for procrastination, unfortunately it often pays off in the workplace. If your boss asks for something to be done at deadline D and you know it takes T, then you do the prep work up front (like research the problem) but don't actually start on the specifics until D-T. Because quite often it turns out no longer to be needed, or before T arrives it's discovered something different is needed, so different that you would have to start over on the task-specific parts. Personally I hate having work on my plate and compulsively finish it up as soon as possible, but doing so isn't really in my own interest (in terms of ROI on my work).

    And, like always, laziness is the mother of all invention. We harnessed animals so we wouldn't have to work ourselves, invented mills to save work of hand milling, etc etc. Basically we invent machines and smarter ways of doing things to save work. Unfortunately this is contradictory to the modern workplace where if you created a machine to do your work for you the employer would lay you off rather than continue paying you a salary for work done by your machine. More specifically, they'd buy your machine and RIF those now superfluous. It's why sysadmins automate tasks with scripts, even though if they do it well enough they might soon find themselves without work. Similarly an engineer who does the work of two and consistently delivers quality results early, without even appearing to work hard, may find management suspicious of whether their job warrants even one single full-time position. At least if management isn't technical enough to tell the difference.

    • by u38cg (607297) <calum@callingthetune.co.uk> on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:25PM (#34148458) Homepage
      If you get five more weeks with 10% more vacation, I'll bid 89% of your current salary to do your job, because fifty weeks holiday a year still sounds pretty sweet to me.
      • If you get five more weeks with 10% more vacation, I'll bid 89% of your current salary to do your job, because fifty weeks holiday a year still sounds pretty sweet to me.

        I would first ask about what his current salary is. Maybe it's a dollar per year.

      • Re: (Score:1, Redundant)

        by obarel (670863)

        It's not 10% of the time off he's getting, it's 10% of the time he's getting paid for.

        Based on your calculation, if I work 100% less, I should expect 100% more days off (e.g. 28 instead of 14). That doesn't make any sense, so "Informative: 4" tells me that the people with karma points should pay more attention at school (less slashdot browsing, more homework).

  • procrastinating until the last responsible moment can require discipline but it helps ensure you are making the most informed, wisest decision.

    sometimes people are unable to see the difference between reflection, consideration and procrastination, which can make this technique difficult to apply in some situations.

    • Yes, often the most efficient way to get a task done well is to let it percolate for some time in your mind, until the best approach pops out. For those contracting by the hour, this means that the real work is often done off the clock, which isn't really fair.

      If you need a good solution right now, the best approach is usually to spend some time thinking about it first, which may look like staring off to space. Again, it's hard to keep a billing clock running while doing this, if only for the feeling of

  • Planning (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PPH (736903) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:42PM (#34148550)

    You take all of your long-term projects, break them down into atomic tasks and allocate time resources to each. However, you have to plan for the unanticipated, high priority tasks that arise short term. So you leave openings in your schedule to accommodate some number of these. But, there are times when such emergencies do not arise. You can keep some low priority tasks to fill in, or you can slide to high priority stuff forward.

    Do the low priority stuff and let the boss see you doing it. The question is then, "Why are you doing this bullshit when my project is due next month?" "Because I have already allocated sufficient resources to complete said project", I think to myself. But PHB doesn't like that kind reasoning. He wants to see nothing but assholes and elbows dedicated to his priorities.

    Slide the high priority stuff up and risk completing it early. Then the boss questions why you asked for a month on the last one and trims two weeks off your next estimate. And then the panic jobs arrive.

    Either way, you're screwed. Procrastination is just a reaction against such scheduling conflicts and a means to keep a bit of flexibility in your planning. As long as PHB thinks its a psychological problem, you can get away with it (or fake a nervous breakdown and get some vacation time in the form of long term disability leave).

  • In Search of Stress (Score:4, Interesting)

    by anorlunda (311253) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:44PM (#34148574) Homepage

    I used to deliberately procrastinate on all coding jobs. That is because I found that I performed best under the stress of an approaching deadline. It forces you to totally focus on the job. In those circumstances, I was most creative, and productive, and made the fewest errors.

    I believe that's why programmers have always loved all nighters. Programs conceived, designed, implemented, and tested in a single unbroken session are far more cohesive than any others.

    I say all this in the past tense. Eventually I burned out when the stress overwhelmed me. Now I'm retired to a cruising sailboat and the closest thing to a deadline I see is the approaching change of season.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by KingAlanI (1270538)

      I often hit my stride as the deadline gets closer, but sometimes the deadline's close enough that I still don't have time even working at the accelerated pace.

  • by Compaqt (1758360) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:52PM (#34148624) Homepage

    I'll be sure to read it ... later.

  • I regard the answer to the question "is anything worth doing at all?" as the answer to the question "what do you enjoy?". If it feels good, brings pleasure, excites you, makes you feel good about yourself, then please do it. If it's boring, tedious, unpleasant, turns your stomach, then please do not do it -- unless, of course, by not doing it something far more unpleasant will result.

    Our brains give us the ability to make reasonable predictions about what might happen if we do or do not take action. At t
  • by phozz bare (720522) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @06:24PM (#34149574)

    Whomever posted this story really took their time...

  • I'll finish this post tomorrow, I'm tired

  • I have so much experience in procrastinating. I am going to write a book about it. One day..

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 06, 2010 @09:37PM (#34151062)

    This might help:
    http://antiprocrastinator.com/

  • A great related book: http://www.thetimeparadox.com/ [thetimeparadox.com]
    "Welcome to The Time Paradox, a new book by Philip Zimbardo & John Boyd.
    The Time Paradox is not a single paradox but a series of paradoxes that shape our lives and our destinies. For example:
    * Paradox 1: Time is one of the most powerful influences on our thoughts, feelings, and actions, yet we are usually totally unaware of the effect of time in our lives.
    * Paradox 2: Each specific attitude toward time--or time perspective--is associated with numerous

  • by MrKaos (858439)
    I'd read this but I have other things to do
  • by kainosnous (1753770)

    Physically speaking, procrastination is entirely a mental problem. In a greater sense, it is a spiritual problem. The article is correct that procrastination is a basic human (i.e. carnal) impulse. It arises from the inability to choose properly between tasks. The time factor is simply applied to the value of a task throughout different points in time. This choice can be between an important but unpleasant task, and a pleasant but not as important task. Less often, it could be a choice of similar tasks, suc

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