Science and Sensibility

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A Historical View of Procrastination

See procrastination in historical and cultural context.

The study of history offers two competing outlooks on human nature. On the one hand, the past reveals continuity in our psychological makeup. People thousands of years ago were much like we are today. Human foibles, including the tendency to put off vitally important commitments, are universal. Ancient wisdom remains relevant for our confrontation with procrastination. 

On the other hand, human attitudes vary profoundly because they are rooted in different cultures. Ideas about success, just like ideas about what is beautiful, are embedded in the larger value systems of different groups. Some nations have a tradition of doubting modernity's preoccupation with the efficient organization of time. For them, procrastination is not a problem but a solution!

"If Not Now, When?"

A sense of timelessness arises when we read Chapters of the Fathers (Pirkei Avot), a collection of Jewish ethical teachings compiled around 200 C.E. The text repeatedly advises readers not to put off important duties. Rabbi Hillel, who was born around 100 B.C.E., says, "Do not say, 'When I am free I will study, for perhaps you will not become free.'" 

Punctuality is the essence of ethics. As Hillel, again, says in one of the most famous expressions in the entire Jewish tradition: "If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?"

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Numerous admonitions in the Christian Bible also speak to humankind's perennial tendency to put things off. Jesus taught that reconciling with our adversaries should be done—immediately (Matthew 5:23-24).  "Don't let the sun go down while you are still angry," echoes Ephesians (4:26).

From these ancient sources we learn that procrastination is a spoiler of morality. It's not enough to know what is right. Personal discipline must close the gap between a good intention and a good deed. This is no less true today than in ancient times.

Urgent to Procrastinate

But history also shows us that cultures vary. Over time and across societies, one person's fish becomes another person's poison. The French word for fish is poisson.  And when it comes to procrastination, French culture is a good place to look if you want to find a playful twist in favor of it. 

Under the Old Regime, France was an aristocratic society. Physical labor was a sign of low status. The original role of the nobles was to be the warrior class.  But that was in the Middle Ages. Under the absolute monarchy of Louis XIV and his successors, nobility became a leisure class, defined by courtly manners and elegant consumption. Before the French Revolution of 1789, the values of hard work and efficiency were characteristics of the bourgeoisie but not of the cultural elite.

Then came 1789 and everything changed—and did not change. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, French Marxists, Romantics, and Anarchists decried the discipline of the industrial factory. The aristocratic disdain for work became the radical's hostility to economic exploitation.

Frenchman David d'Equainville (note the d' in his name: it's a sign of nobility) recently proclaimed March 26, 2011 to be International Procrastination Day. A joke circulating on the internet is that it was originally scheduled for March 25. "Procrastination Day Put Off Til Tomorrow," was an April 3, 2011, headline in The Telegraph. 

Combining classic attitudes of the old nobility with the modern French intellectual's hostility toward capitalism, d'Equainville has written a pamphlet in favor of procrastination.  It is called "Manifesto for a Day Put Off."  It is currently available only in French. The publisher's blurb says, "It is urgent to procrastinate against all the trends breathing down our neck. Procrastination is an art that brings doubt and skepticism to unquestioned standards of efficiency."

There is, of course, a middle ground here. Deliberate delay can help us realize that certain tasks are not worth pursuing. Some business books advise us that having a "not to do list" is as valuable as a "to do" list.  And everyone would agree that when it comes to dealing with harmful addictions, procrastination is the enemy.

But a deep difference is still evident in French attitudes compared to American. On the whole, we Americans believe that we fulfill ourselves through our sum total of achievements, our deeds as individuals. The French believe more in the value of sociable association outside of work—the long meal, the fête. This is why Americans maintain a closer relationship to the earnest precepts of ancient religious texts (it is well established that France is a more secular society). 

Because we never had a hereditary nobility, the aristocrat's sense of superiority toward earned merit has not distracted us from early Judeo-Christian conceptions of self-improvement. 

In America, the moral urgency of "if not now, when?" merges with the modern compulsion to enhance our performance in all areas of life. Procrastination for the French may be something to celebrate. For Americans it is just a problem. Psychology in the United States, along with religion, is now charged with the difficult task of counseling a wide range of individuals—from drug addicts to successful business people striving to be even more successful—for whom procrastination is a roadblock to complete fulfillment.

Dan Gordon, Ph.D., University of Massachusetts, History Department

 

 

 

Dr. Bill Knaus, Ed.D., is the author of more than 20 books; one, "Overcoming Procrastination", was co-authored with Albert Ellis.

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