Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Procrastination Rules My Nation

"Later: What does Procrastination Tell Us About Ourselves?" is an interesting, thorough look at why people procrastinate. Author James Surowiecki provides several examples, several means of thought and several different discussions on the case. As someone who procrastinates with the best of them (or perhaps better than most), I was most definitely interested in the article. As with many New Yorker pieces, the prose was slightly overblown and a little long, but many of the examples Surowiecki offers ring true. For example:

A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”

Hence, the reason why (besides having a baby) The Hurt Locker has been sitting next to our TV since March, and movies such as Couples Retreat have been watched and returned.

Another example:

We often procrastinate not by doing fun tasks but by doing jobs whose only allure is that they aren’t what we should be doing. My apartment, for instance, has rarely looked tidier than it does at the moment.

So true. It’s only the home tasks, like laundry, grocery shopping and dishes, that get done when they need to – because we have to eat and wear clothes to live day to day, but we don’t have to have dusted tables or clean bathrooms - and even then, I only do these at the absolute last moment. Or, why when I have a pending freelance assignment, I can surf the Internet for longer than I believe one should surf the Internet.

Surowiecki wonders if procrastination is a sign of weakness. While in some cases it could be, I also think it’s just the way some people’s minds work, especially if we don’t have deadlines to work with. The author provides an example of college students, who are given the choice to turn three papers in at staggered deadlines or all at once at the end of the semester. Smartly, the students pick the staggered deadlines, knowing enough about themselves that if they didn’t, they would all be writing three papers during the last week of the semester.

Procrastination also depends on what type of task we’re working on. Writes the author,

That’s why David Allen, the author of the best-selling time-management book “Getting Things Done,” lays great emphasis on classification and definition: the vaguer the task, or the more abstract the thinking it requires, the less likely you are to finish it.
This can go right along with the idea of having too many choices in life, which we do. He writes,

Another way of making procrastination less likely is to reduce the amount of choice we have: often when people are afraid of making the wrong choice they end up doing nothing. So companies might be better off offering their employees fewer investment choices in their 401(k) plans, and making signing up for the plan the default option.
How many times have you let an opportunity go by because you just couldn’t decide what action to take? It happens all. the. time.

In the end, I’d say I’m a middle-of-the-road procrastinator. When something’s due far out, I’ll put it off and put it off, even if I could get it done in 30 minutes and cross it off the list today. But, I also think I need those deadlines - and produce some pretty good work, when I have the pressure of looming deadlines. I also have the strong mentality that things will just work out, which is why, even though I was panicking a bit when I was still searching for daycare after our baby was born, I wasn't too panicked. Everything, for 30 years, has just always worked out, or gotten done, and that did, too.

Why do you think people procrastinate? Is it just human nature?

[Edited to add: Willikat brought to my attention the term incubator, which may be a better word to describe some of us who consider ourselves procrastinators.]

1 comment:

Maega said...

I for sure do the easy things first, unless it is a very important task that I'm worried about, then I get started asap. Like hemming my dress for AG's wedding- got that done asap ;) I like to procrastinate on creative tasks, it helps me produce a more creative outcome. I think the pressure makes me a bit edgy, in a good way.