Empirical research would suggest that almost 90% of people are chronic procrastinators, with acute exacerbations occurring most frequently in student populations. Given the incidence of this condition in the general population, it appears possible – even likely – that this behavior confers selective advantage, and since this trait enjoys continued popularity and prevalence in our society, one could suggest – as I will – that there is an evolutionary basis to its existence. Furthermore, as a procrastinator first and scientist second, I feel I can speak to some of the overlooked benefits of this type of behavior.
To procrastinate is to “delay or postpone action” as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary, and is derived from the Latin procrastinare, meaning “to defer till the morning”. As expected, and true to its British roots, the OED provides us with a diplomatic, dispassionate definition. Across the Atlantic, the official dictionary entry takes on a slightly less impartial tone, with Merriam Webster offering this take on my favorite pastime: “to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done”.
Procrastination gets a bad rap. A quick search on Wikipedia (the go-to site when beginning one’s research on any topic, and coincidentally, a treasure trove for the true procrastinator – more on this later…) reveals that procrastination is a coping mechanism for those anxious about starting or completing “any task or decision”. And apparently, procrastinating chronically is indicative of an underlying psychological disorder. But this isn’t news to anyone who has ever intentionally put off something that needed to be done: everywhere we look there are books, seminars, motivational speakers and websites all eager to teach us how to be more effective, more decisive, more efficient. Procrastination is public enemy number one in our quest to do ever more in ever less time. Type “procrastination” into Google, or your search-engine of choice, and apart from the requisite Wikipedia entry, the vast majority of the 5,900,000 search results deal with how to overcome this calamitous complaint.
Perhaps because of some perverse desire to be contrary or possibly due to my ‘underlying psychological disorder’, I feel that procrastination can be beneficial in maximizing the utility of one’s time. Through the myriad benefits of procrastination, which I shall proceed to list below, people who procrastinate well can get more accomplished, more efficiently and with greater success than those who follow the tedious mantra of good time management. The following will outline the common features of procrastination to which most can relate, I hope to build a case to clear procrastination’s name and demonstrate how such delay tactics can enrich our lives and optimize our limited time.
PRESSURE = GOOD!
As we all know,
Let’s assume that area represents time till due date. With this we can see that for equal force (task to be done), as area decreases (time is ticking…) pressure will increase proportionally. Sure you could get started on that paper that’s due next month right now, but the pressure of the task will be so low as to be unlikely to power any sort of progress, certainly not efficient progress. But wait until the night before, and by Jove, the pressure build up will cause those words to come flying out of you!
GET ALL YOUR DUCKS IN A ROW
Procrastination is active avoidance of the task at hand, but thoughts about this task tend to diffuse passively into one’s brain during the procrastination process. It is an unfortunate occurrence and requires ‘active transport’ to remove all traces of task related thoughts from the mind – hence the sudden fascination one has with today’s episode of Entertainment Tonight when faced with a tax return to complete, or a data set to analyze… What is new with Britney? Is Angelina Jolie pregnant? Again? These are important questions, the significance of which grows exponentially as deadlines near. All the effort we expend ridding our minds of the jobs we avoid inevitably leads to much thought going into these very tasks. And the more one tries to avoid a task, the more one inadvertently thinks about it. These thoughts are not futile, but rather like tiny snowflakes accumulating to create an avalanche of productivity once the appropriate moment is reached. Bottom line: subconscious preparation gets the job done with minimal effort.
Every year I complete my tax return. I do this, without fail, on the evening of the last day for submission. Being as how I am a student, and therefore do not have any money, even Revenue Canada cannot figure out a way to claim I owe them taxes. So in reality I could opt not to file my return, knowing full well that these types of organizations only pursue those who owe them money and are quite laid back when the debt goes the other way. Nevertheless, as a responsible citizen, I fulfill my duty and fill out the requisite forms, send them to our great government and wait patiently for my meager refund cheque to arrive six months later. In my months of procrastination and avoidance, brief pangs of guilt compel me to assemble a pile of relevant correspondence, receipts and forms. I add to the pile every other week or so, with the general intention that perhaps that will be the day I file the return early. I secretly know that I would never do such a thing, but the delusion serves its purpose, and so on April 30th, when I have only an hour to complete my filing, I can find all the necessary paperwork and finish the task efficiently and on time.
DON’T WASTE TIME AND ENERGY DOING STUFF THAT MIGHT NOT NEED TO BE DONE
One of the greatest, and least appreciated, benefits of procrastination is the fact that if you put something off long enough you may not need to actually do it. Recently, whilst discussing the preponderance of terrible data and negative experimental results I was experiencing with fellow lab minions, we formed the brilliant idea that a journal should be created to accommodate such data. If there ever were a journal in which I could publish prolifically, this would be it. And given that most of us engaged in scientific research experience more failures than success, imagine the wealth of data that exists! We excitedly debated the possibility of such a magnificent publication, extolling the virtues of sharing with the world (or at the very least, geeks like ourselves) the fact that one cannot successfully detect this or that protein in such and such a cell line… If we were a group of go-getters, perhaps we would have done something about this, but thank goodness we procrastinated! Turns out those evil geniuses at Harvard beat us to it with the aptly, yet dully, named Journal of Negative Results in Biomedical Research. Hmmm… our journal would have had a far snazzier title; International Journal of Garbage, Research in Futility or simply Crap . This approach also works with taking out the recycling: waiting long enough may compel your roommate to complete the task, and the only cost related to this tremendous benefit, is occasionally walking around a pile of empty beer bottles. The key here is energy conservation. A convenient byproduct of this approach is also time conservation.
LITTLE THINGS COUNT
My car is never cleaner than when I have an important task to complete. It is thoroughly vacuumed, the rims are polished, even the glass has been windex-ed. My closet is also immaculate at these times. The correlation has not escaped my attention. In the long summer months, when days are long and there are many fun activities in which to partake, when school is out for the year and there are no assignments, when co-workers take vacation and things slow down just a little, my car and closet are disaster areas. There is simply no time to complete the menial tasks – nothing to focus attention on the details. Having an important deadline confers upon one myopic vision. Suddenly trivial every-day chores gain new meaning, and more importantly, they get done. And not just done – done well. The thoroughness of my cleaning routine is astounding in times of stress, for I couldn’t possibly read that paper when the kitchen is in disarray! Or prepare that presentation when my tires need to be rotated. How could I contemplate preparing my grant application when I haven’t written to Grandma since last Christmas? Procrastination can therefore offer some respite from a hectic lifestyle, and allow one to slow down and focus on the details – which although seemingly trivial, are the stuff of life, and deserve our attention.
TAKING THE LONG WAY HOME
It has been said that the greatest discoveries happen by accident. Daydreaming is a form of avoidance which can certainly be classified as procrastination, yet has lead to a great many advances, particularly in science. Einstein was prone to prolonged daydreams, and it was during one such reverie that he is said to have fine tuned his Theory of Relativity . For some, procrastination results in action, whether organizing socks or cleaning closets. For others, procrastination results in inaction and a state of contemplation. Others still attempt their baneful task, but become easily distracted by tidbits of information they find along the way. Which brings us back to Wikipedia – nowhere else can one spend endless hours wandering through a maze of information, each article linked to another, and another even less relevant, but more fascinating, entry. Oh, the things I have learned by total fluke! The Sweetener Wars, the drama that was New Coke, the fact that tomatoes are berries… and what is a pumpkin you may ask, well, thanks to an evening of procrastination, I can tell you that it is ALSO a berry. Mind-blowing.
In order to get a good evolutionary perspective on my hypothesis I decided that it might be a helpful to contact an evolutionary biologist. Unfortunately, due to time constraints (resulting in part from ‘delaying the inevitable’ ) I was unable to locate one in time. I do however have a friend who counts himself part of the Creationist camp, and I briefly considered ‘taking the inverse’ of his ideas on this question as a ballpark gauge of what my elusive evolutionist would have said . Unfortunately the conversation didn’t get far past the “evolution” stage, and consisted of my being informed that God gave us free will and that sloth is a mortal sin. All good points, but not really helpful for my purpose. So there goes my attempt at being fair and balanced . I shall have to draw my conclusions alone.
The rewards of procrastination are plentiful, and those listed above are merely a sampling of some of the ways delaying the inevitable can be of benefit. Each one of us can add more elements to said list, reflecting the diverse and innovative ways humanity has evolved to deal with onerous tasks. The features of procrastination are tailored to optimize the efficient utilization of time and energy, while providing sufficient time for intellectual diversion and doing so can only serve to advantage those who practice these tactics. I have already admitted my chronic patterns of procrastination and in doing some research on the topic have been able to appreciate the prevalence of this behavior amongst my friends and acquaintances. It appears that people instinctively know the minimal time and effort they need to expend to complete a given task satisfactorily. Procrastinating is merely a rearrangement of priorities, and the negative connotations associated with these delay tactics are manufactured by societal beliefs. If anything needs to be rectified it is the guilt associated with procrastination, not the act of deferment itself. So I say to my fellow postponers – be proud, be productive, be a procrastinator!
1. By empirical research, I mean that I looked at myself, my colleagues at work, and fellow students at school, and decided that we constitute a representative sample of most of humanity. It is possible that I am surrounded by a bunch of slackers and that these observations cannot be extrapolated to the population at large.
4. My favorite journal name is Shock. Our Crap journal would seek to emulate the genius of this title.
6. Whilst procrastinating momentarily during the writing of this paragraph I counted the number of times I used the word “procrasti-“ [22 times thus far] and have decided to mix things up a little by varying my terminology.
7. I have formed a hypothetical equation, which looks something like this:
It’s a work in progress…
8. Although I may have achieved this in the Fox News sense at least…