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In Praise of Procrastination 118

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 maxwell demon ( 590494 ) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @02:41PM (#34148272) Journal

    The easy way to confront that reality is to try to name one Etruscan or one Babylonian. Chances are that you can not. What then does it matter if an Etruscan committed a robbery, a theft, a rape, or a murder?

    Today? Nothing. Back then? A lot.
    Don't make the basic mistake to dismiss the short term relevance. A lot of the things I do don't have any long term relevance (at least individually; another aspect which is easily overlooked is that the sum of individually irrelevant things can be together very relevant). But my life would be poor without them.

  • 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.

  • 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".

  • Re:Obligatory (Score:5, Insightful)

    by rubycodez ( 864176 ) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:15PM (#34148408)

    that's a good short-term graph. Long term, over decades, my procrastination curve is climbing upward as a second order polynomial, because I realize more and more of the modern rat-race "obligations" are arbitrary made-up bullshit.

  • 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 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.

  • Re:Obligatory (Score:3, Insightful)

    by u38cg ( 607297 ) <> on Saturday November 06, 2010 @03:19PM (#34148430) Homepage
    And, of course, how to get your stuff done. []
  • 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).

  • by Colin Smith ( 2679 ) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @04:50PM (#34149000)

    Not quite all human activity.

    In 5 years, what will your current work be worth?
    50 years?
    5000? Our entire civilisation will be gone.

    Anyone name anything or anyone or from 50,000 years ago? It's a blink of an eye in geological and evolutionary terms, but there is one single thing you can do which can matter over these timescales.

    Have children. Procreate. Pass your genes on.

    Your genes have an unbroken line of success going back to the primordial slime 4 billion years ago. If you break that line you are just another genetic dead end.

  • 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.

  • by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @06:32PM (#34149634)

    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.

  • by Hatta ( 162192 ) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @07:45PM (#34150174) Journal

    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 there's plenty of time to do it. I let the work pile up until there's enough work to fill the time left, then I go at it. Of course, due to Hofstadter's law [], this never ends well.

  • by fbjon ( 692006 ) on Saturday November 06, 2010 @09:18PM (#34150952) Homepage Journal
    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 specific plan helps. Not just a mindmap, but actual steps to be taken when and where, that lead to a certain goal without fail. Of course, life itself doesn't have very many maps about, so in that case pick a partial goal, and remember the first pair of pics from this comic. [] Or to put it in more work-related terms, a situation that is not yet completely FUBARed can still be salvaged, and with skill, nobody will even notice. And even if someone notices, at least the situation is salvaged.

    Incidentally, I can recommend reading through that entire webcomic, it's made me realise many important things.

  • by KingAlanI ( 1270538 ) on Sunday November 07, 2010 @02:57AM (#34152444) Homepage Journal

    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 kainosnous ( 1753770 ) <> on Sunday November 07, 2010 @05:46AM (#34152918)

    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, such as in Buridan's Ass []. Either case is the result of an incomplete method of heuristics. This is because without a proper world view, it is hard to determine which course of action is most beneficial. Even with a solid world view, the future cannot be seen. In reality, only one course is most beneficial.

    The solution is simple, even if it is hard to apply. One must submit their own will to God and be led by his Word and His Spirit. If we commit our works to the Lord, He will establish our thoughts (Proverbs 16:3). As we seek God's will, our own pleasure seems less important and therefore less likely to sway us from important tasks. Furthermore, with divine promptings from the Law, secular authority, and the Holy Spirit, we can be guided into the actions which ultimately are most beneficial without having to use our own heuristics. This does not guarantee that a person is correct, but as one draws nigh to God, the tendency to procrastinate is lessened.

Logic is the chastity belt of the mind!