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Procrastination: A Basic Human Instinct

Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow!

I've been putting this off for months. Some time ago I read a review in The New Yorker of a book called "The Thief of Time," a collection of essays on the subject of procrastination. I have also put off buying the book because it costs $65, but I did enjoy the review. At the top was a cartoon showing a well-dressed academic type studying with interest (but not doing anything about) a large fire in his office. A fire-extinguisher sits idly by.

Being human, we all procrastinate from time to time. For example, my resume/bio says that I am working on a memoir. And I am. The trouble with memoirs is that they are by definition "works in progress," and mine is no exception. It has been revised more than once to please prospective publishers. (The last one procrastinated for six months before telling me, regretfully, that they would not be publishing it.)

But back to The New Yorker review, by James Surowiecki, which is subtitled "What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?" Quite a lot, apparently. He cites an essay by a central figure in the study of procrastination who contends that dragging our heels about finishing a task "could well be the basic human impulse." That's a bit strong, I think, but I'll put off any further criticism.

The reviewer does agree that procrastination is a basic human instinct, and probably as old as the hills, but argues that anxiety about it has only emerged in the recent past, making it a quintessentially modern problem. And a costly one. Americans waste millions by not filing their taxes on time and failing to sign up for 401(k) retirement plans. Governments and industry are no better. As an example, he cites the bankruptcy of GM, which was due in part to delaying tough decisions.

One philosopher defines procrastination as willingly deferring something even though you expect the delay to make you worse off, which surely must contribute to the anxiety about it. In other words, avoiding unpleasant tasks doesn't make us happy. And here is a conclusion that I can agree with: When we put off doing something by telling ourselves that we will do it later, we fail to consider that the temptation to put it off will be just as strong later as it is now.

People do learn from experience, of course, and so it follows that we know all too well the risks of procrastinating, and know we should resist -- but so often don't. Many factors contribute to the problem: lack of confidence, unrealistic dreams of success, leading to excessive planning to avoid failure, and a devotion to perfectionism. A complex mixture of weakness, ambition and inner conflict, ending in what one philosopher calls "the divided self" or what Otto von Bismarck said on the subject: "Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic." (Or the United States Congress?)

What to do? For one thing, we can rely on external tools and techniques to prop up the parts of ourselves that really want to work. The author cites as a classic example Ulysses' decision to have his men bind him to the mast so that he could resist the Sirens who would have him steer the ship onto the rocks. Not being in the same boat with Ulysses, so to speak, modern man can use devices such as setting deadlines to help strengthen the resolve. Another would be to limit the number of choices before us. (When faced with too many choices, the chronic procrastinator often ends up doing nothing.) In other words, instead of trusting our own will power, we can rely on outside tools to make us do what we actually want to do in the first place.

On the other hand, the author suggests that, before rushing to overcome this basic human impulse to procrastinate, we might stop to consider whether it is sometimes one that should be heeded instead. Are there some things that aren't really worth doing?

Good point. And so the question for me is, do I really want to finish my memoir?

In my house procrastination has a name. It's "Doris," as in "Tomorrow, Doris," Ingrid Bergman's comment to her maid in the 1958 romantic comedy, "Indiscreet." In the opening scene of the movie she has just returned unexpectedly from a vacation in Majorca, and her maid's every suggestion -- a hot meal, a nice massage -- is met with the same rejection: "Tomorrow, Doris." For 50-odd years those words have been synonymous in my family's vocabulary with "Not now. Maybe later."

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