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The True Meaning of Procrastination

A look at what procrastination really means.

Is procrastination a good thing?

I just finished doing a TV interview on Al Jazeera's Riz Khan show, and that was one of the questions I and co-panelist Professor George Ainslie were asked. Dr. Ainslie's 1992 book, Picoeconomics, essentially kick-started both the behavioral revolution that is presently happening in economics as well as my own research into procrastination. When I discovered the book in the late 1990s, I read it cover-to-cover — twice. It ultimately helped inspire my own book.

The show has a very international crowd and there were several big questions, including "Is procrastination cultural" and "What are the public policy implications?" I will tackle these latter two questions in later posts as they each deserve exclusive focus. (Which begs the question: By putting off everything else until later, am I now procrastinating? Answers and comments below, please?)

Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first comprehensive English dictionary, had procrastination defined as "delay" and some still maintain this definition. The Free Dictionary, for instance, maintains it is "slowness as a consequence of not getting around to it."

However, if procrastination means simply delay, then we should be comfortable placing it along with the similar concepts of scheduling or prioritizing. But we aren't. Consider the following two examples.

Imagine you are a surgeon and about to put a patient under general anesthetic. If you find out that he or she if you just ate at a buffet and went back for seconds, you should hold off on the operation. There is a real risk unconscious patients could empty their stomachs directly into their lungs, where the digestive juices start to dissolve more than their last meal.

Or imagine you are vacationing in the Caribbean and have scheduled some sport fishing when a category five hurricane blows in. With winds in excess of 155 miles or 250 kilometres per hour and waves ten stories high, a category five is two full notches above Hurricane Katrina when it devastated New Orleans. So you put your plans aside for a day or two.

Both of these examples have elements of delay, but would you characterize either of these delays that avoid dissolving or drowning as dilly-dallying? Likely not. Implicitly, like the Grinch regarding Christmas, we understand that maybe procrastination ... perhaps ... means a little bit more.

My fellow procrastination researcher (and uniquely accomplished dogsledder) Timothy Pychyl points out that "all procrastination is delay, but not all delay is procrastination." Procrastination is a very special type of postponement; unlike the delays in the examples above, procrastination is irrational.

This important distinction is increasingly recognized. The American Heritage Dictionary, for example, defines procrastination as "To put off doing something, especially out of habitual carelessness or laziness," while Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary calls it "To put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done."

But it is the Oxford English Dictionary that gets closest to the irrational dark heart of the word. It defines procrastination as a postponement, "often with the sense of deferring though indecision, when early action would have been preferable," or as "defer[ing] action, especially without good reason."

Which is surely what Dr. Johnson meant, despite his original one-word definition. He later described procrastination as "one of the general weaknesses, which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind."

(And Dr. Johnson knew of what he spoke; the good doctor put off writing his article condemning procrastination until the last possible moment, composing it in Sir Joshua Reynolds' parlor while the errand boy waited outside to bring it to press. It appeared in the weekly periodical The Rambler in 1751.)

So is procrastination a good thing? Only by accident. If you put off something purposefully because you think it's a good idea to delay, you're not procrastinating. You're scheduling or prioritizing, sometimes just to feel the motivational thrill of doing it all at the last moment. Procrastination is when you planned or felt that you should have done the thing earlier, and then delayed anyway. In short, it is putting off despite expecting to be worse off.

Now the world doesn't always unfold according to our expectations, and sometimes Lady Luck steps in and we find that the task we have been putting off didn't need to get done after all — a truly happy moment, like when a project gets canceled and it turns out the boss doesn't need that report you never got around to writing in the first place. This is "beneficial procrastination." But because it only happens when the world operates against your own expectations, on average, procrastination is only a good strategy for the clinically insane or the perpetually deluded. The way the world is and the way you believe it to be must to be at odds. Otherwise, you are just getting lucky occasionally by procrastinating. It's like going to Las Vegas and spinning the roulette wheel — once in a while you'll win, but most of the time you won't.

Still, a lot of people continue to misuse the word "procrastination" to describe useful delays, when there are plenty of other words that describe these delays better (e.g., "prudence"). And people misuse lots of other words, like "irony." For example, in the cartoon Futurama's Emmy- and Annie-nominated episode "The Devil's Hands Are Idle Playthings" (which in itself is a reference to procrastination), the Robot Bender corrects everyone's use of the word "ironic." Whether you want to use the word "procrastination" correctly is up to you. But I do ask you this.

If you hear the munching of cookies and glugging of milk in your living room on Christmas Eve, and, after a brave decision to investigate, find a chubby and jolly old elf who has waited 365 days to deliver a sack full of brightly wrapped presents, thank him for his timeliness. He could have come earlier, but please don't characterize his choice to delay his Yuletide travels as procrastination.

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