I can’t keep in mind the final time I did one thing earlier than I completely needed to. I don’t pay my payments till I get the second or third disconnection discover, and when my girlfriend and I took a trip to Europe, I didn’t get my passport till the evening earlier than. Each six months I throw out the soiled dishes I’ve been laying aside washing for half a yr and purchase new ones. At a current writing job at a startup, my copy was due each two weeks; I’d do nothing for 13 days after which grind out 12,000 to fifteen,000 phrases in a brutal 20-hour marathon, throughout which I’d all the time, sooner or later, be practically lowered to tears of despair, slumped at my desk, head in fingers, swearing that I’d by no means, ever do that to myself once more. (I all the time did it once more, like clockwork, two weeks later.)
Procrastination is my very own private affliction; it’s additionally so frequent that it could be mentioned to be common. It’s not unique to losers, and even people; pigeons procrastinate, and so do monkeys. Nice males procrastinate. Leonardo da Vinci was as soon as commissioned to finish a portray in seven months and took 25 years to complete it. Dying, he apologized for “leaving a lot undone.” After Charles Darwin formulated his idea of pure choice and informed pals it could fully overturn the scientific world, he took 22 years to truly put it to paper, spending the intervening many years on barnacle analysis about which, he wrote in his autobiography, “I doubt whether or not the work was definitely worth the consumption of a lot time.” The larger the duty, the extra tempting it may be to attend till the final minute. In 2018, scientists began intensive efforts to save lots of the northern white rhino—when there have been solely two left on the planet. I’m not criticizing; I perceive. “Hey, ought to we begin saving the northern white rhino? There’s solely three or 4 left.” “Three or 4? Man, what’s the push?”
Procrastination can also be turning into rather more frequent; one examine by Canadian professor Piers Metal discovered that the quantity of people that thought-about themselves continual procrastinators had elevated from 5 p.c in 1978 to 26 p.c in 2007. That determine has undoubtedly grown within the intervening years. Scientists have discovered that distractibility has a powerful correlation with procrastination, and we’ve all change into exponentially extra distractible within the final decade and a half, if solely as a result of there are exponentially extra distractions at our literal fingertips. This particular person downside has change into a collective one; in spite of everything, what’s our boiling earth if not the results of us collectively saying, “Certain, we’ll cease burning oil—however not but”?
However, for all that so many people procrastinate, can anybody actually clarify why we do it? One idea lies within the phrase itself. Whereas “procrastinate” is derived from the Latin procrastinare, which implies “to place off till tomorrow,” it additionally shares etymology with the Greek time period akrasia, which implies appearing in opposition to your higher judgment. Technically talking, procrastination is extra than simply delaying motion; it’s a self-betrayal, a deviation. After we procrastinate, this etymology suggests, we’re basically misled by false want, away from the trail of correct motion.
Squint somewhat and you may see this definition rests on the idea that we’re inclined, naturally and by default, towards correct motion—“doing the proper factor.” This can be a broadly accepted idea that’s unfold from classical financial idea to a lot of the broader tradition: that we’re all innately rational actors who do what most advantages us. However what if we aren’t?
For the previous couple of years, in an effort to trick myself into fixing my little downside, I’ve redirected my procrastinatory impulse into searching for data that can result in a treatment. Each time I stray from my work (OK, not each time), I drive myself to eschew social media in favor of studying books, articles, and research about how you can overcome procrastination—a kind of meta-procrastination, a variation on “I’ve a ebook to complete, so in fact I’ll clear my kitchen first.”
After some time, I had realized a lot about procrastination that I used to be certain I may write a bestseller on overcoming procrastination. (I haven’t gotten round to writing it but. Possibly subsequent month.) However to my reasonable chagrin, I’ve found that whereas everybody promoting a ebook or course or app that can assist you blast by procrastination claims they’ve found the precise root explanation for procrastination, and may typically lay out a reasonably convincing idea supported by various quantities of proof, a survey of the sector reveals that there’s nothing even remotely resembling a consensus on what, precisely, my (our) downside is. Some consider it’s attributable to a insecurity—that procrastinators worry, deep down, that they’ll screw issues up, so their ego prevents them from starting. (This was Sigmund Freud’s idea.) Others suppose the other, that it’s attributable to overconfidence: that procrastinators don’t begin their work till the final minute as a result of they arrogantly overestimate their skills. Then there are the “procrastinators are optimists” versus “procrastinators are pessimists” camps; based on the previous idea, optimists consider their future selves will probably be extra in a position and prepared to deal with the duty at hand, so that they delegate to that extra competent future self. The latter idea holds that pessimists overestimate how painful and unsightly the work will probably be and are paralyzed with dread.
On a elementary stage, researchers can’t even agree if procrastination is doing one thing or doing nothing. To some, it’s what it seems to be, i.e., inaction, whereas others suppose it’s simply the mistaken kind of motion, uncontrolled—that procrastinators are addicts, compulsively freebasing leisure with no considered the morning after. There’s even a materialist wing of procrastination idea based mostly on a 2018 examine wherein MRIs revealed that the amygdalas of procrastinators appeared to be essentially completely different from these of non-procrastinators—mainly, you set off your work since you’re brain-damaged.
The idea that’s ascendant in at this time’s therapy-obsessed zeitgeist contends that procrastination is an emotional downside. (“Males will write 15,000 phrases in 20 hours as a substitute of going to remedy.”) You’re feeling dangerous, so as a substitute of doing all your work (which is able to make you’re feeling even worse), you chase small fast pleasures like scrolling on Instagram or watching YouTube movies, which makes you’re feeling even worse since you’re nonetheless not working, main you right into a demise spiral of avoidance.
Taken collectively, these theories recall to mind the parable of the blind males and the elephant, wherein every of them grasps a distinct a part of the animal—the foot, the ear, the trunk—and comes up with a distinct description. However, as I went additional down my procrasti-rabbit gap—the extra I considered procrastination as a substitute of doing no matter it was that I used to be purported to be doing—the extra it appeared to me that there’s a deadly flaw on the coronary heart of procrastination research, that the elephant within the room isn’t really procrastination, however one thing else fully.
You’re not laying aside your work—you’re selecting to fuck up.
The primary downside is that one of many foundational assumptions of how we outline procrastination—that individuals are naturally inclined towards appearing of their finest pursuits—has been completely debunked. Two Nobel prizes previously decade have gone to males who’ve confirmed that we aren’t, actually, rational actors in any respect: Richard Thaler, who demonstrated that individuals are predictably irrational, and Robert Shiller, who argued that markets, like buyers, usually are not completely rational. This irrationality is obvious to anybody who’s ever labored in retail or gotten drunk in an airport Applebee’s, but it surely has one way or the other eluded, till lately, nearly each economist in historical past. (No marvel their predictions are by no means proper.) That is essential as a result of underneath the “rational actor” idea, each motion that veers away from a theoretical utilitarian ultimate needs to be rationalized away as dysfunction—you’re taking a look at Twitter (X, certain) as a substitute of doing all your spreadsheets as a result of your mind is broken, or as a result of your ego is locked right into a defensive paralysis. It’s not doable that you just could be doing precisely what you need, even supposing it’s a foul thought. You would possibly say that you really want pizza for dinner however, belief me, you really desire a salad. Need doesn’t determine into this worldview, besides as an adjunct to obligation—a conception that the majority adults acknowledge as comically wrong-headed. In spite of everything, nobody ever procrastinates having intercourse, or consuming ice cream.
A extra reasonable definition of procrastination is that it’s not a blockage of inherent purpose, however a easy absence of want. This appears each painfully apparent and vaguely revolutionary, and it’s not with out its precedents. Socrates, based on Plato, argued that akrasia isn’t even an actual factor, that it’s not doable to behave in opposition to your higher judgment as a result of there is no such thing as a higher judgment. Actions need to be taken at face worth, as de facto proof of motive. You’re not laying aside your work—you’re selecting to fuck up.
Redefining procrastination like this makes a delicate however essential distinction. As an alternative of seeing ourselves as rational actors who’re mysteriously restrained—a quasi-medieval view of issues that mainly substitutes “an overactive amygdala” and “impostor syndrome” for “foul humours” and “evil spirits”—it opens a path to a extra reasonable definition of ourselves as fickle, irrational flakes who, like recalcitrant mules, should be cajoled, bribed, prodded, or bullied into motion. (One of many solely anti-procrastination methods that ever labored for me was the trick—I can’t keep in mind the place I first got here throughout it—of asking your self, “How would somebody deal with this in the event that they weren’t an absolute LOSER such as you?” This could sometimes disgrace me into motion.)
This additionally modifications the complexion of anti-procrastination recommendation. Somewhat than being about surmounting intangible obstacles, the query turns into a way more simple one among how you can prod your self into doing issues—or perhaps not doing them. A few of the ancients, unencumbered by rickety notions of human rationality or the Protestant work ethic, had a lot completely different options for procrastination. The Epicureans suggested that, when you discovered your self placing one thing off, you need to abandon it altogether. Admittedly, they didn’t need to work a 9-to-5, however perhaps there’s one thing to the concept if you end up chronically laying aside your work, you need to get a distinct job. It additionally forces us to confront the function—or absence—of want in our lives. Take into account how many people reside lives that largely preclude the train of particular person want, besides in microdoses of essentially the most vicarious type—taking a look at pictures of meals, or movies of different folks having intercourse. That we might sometimes, or typically, resist this cold pantomime appears cheap. When we have now entry to so few actual pleasures, the pleasure of refusal is irresistible. Fixing your procrastination would possibly require fixing your life.
The issue with this line of considering is that it isn’t actually useful as sensible recommendation, which might be why it doesn’t seem within the self-help books—which, consistent with the spirit of the occasions, are extra about making you’re feeling good than really serving to you. Our day-to-day actuality is that all of us have issues we should do so as to reside—end these spreadsheets so we receives a commission, write our excessive schooler’s faculty essay so that they get into a great faculty, and so on. How will we do them after we don’t need to?
As any true procrastinator is aware of, a glance into the abyss is commonly the one surefire motivator.
My favourite anecdote about procrastination and motivation is from the lifetime of Anthony Burgess, the creator of A Clockwork Orange, amongst many different books. Within the late ’50s, Burgess was educating in Borneo, ingesting closely, and hadn’t but critically launched into his writing profession. When he was recognized with a mind tumor and given a yr to reside, he moved again to England and, determined to depart a legacy, wrote 4 books in lower than a yr, one among which was his masterpiece, Clockwork. (Fortunately, the analysis turned out to be false, and he lived till 1993. Rumor has it that the false analysis was organized by somebody in Borneo who wished to do away with Burgess—a merciless deception that may have been the most effective factor that ever occurred to him.) As Burgess realized, and any true procrastinator is aware of, a glance into the abyss is commonly the one surefire motivator. Getting issues executed could be much less a matter of “feeling good” (a idea that appears fairly dumb whenever you spell it out like that) and extra one among easy urgency. However want can’t be bought cheaply—an unlucky reality for everybody pushing a quick-fix procrastination treatment of respiratory workout routines or Pomodoro Method timers. That we regularly need to tiptoe proper to the sting of literal destroy simply to lastly, reluctantly accede to our greatest pursuits suggests simply how deeply irrational we’re, and the way procrastination and want are sometimes intertwined with one other common impulse—that of self-destruction.
However whereas I’m no optimist (or perhaps I’m; I admit I sometimes discover myself rationalizing that tomorrow’s self will probably be a lot extra prepared and in a position to deal with at this time’s work), I really feel that the need to behave tends to manifest when it’s wanted. The actual agony of the procrastinator isn’t to create want out of skinny air, however to belief that it gained’t come too late.