Maybe later: thoughts on procrastination
Updated: Jul 30
Several years ago, I was at a conference and was excited to notice, amongst the hundreds of sessions on offer, a workshop designed to help people overcome procrastination. I added the session to my schedule and was really looking forward to it. But on the day, I became deeply engrossed in conversation with a fellow attendee over lunch, and having lost track of the time, I arrived a few minutes late. No big deal, I thought as I rushed across campus. Arriving a bit late is not usually a problem at this conference. (I always give a few presentations and have noticed people coming in not just 10 or 20 minutes after the start, but 10 minutes before the end!) When I got there, a small crowd was gathered outside the room. The organisers had locked the doors, leaving me and the other late arrivals out in the cold. ‘Sorry,’ one of the stewards said, ‘the room was so crowded it would be dangerous to let anyone else in.’ The other stragglers and I had a good laugh about the irony – surely the people who most needed a procrastination-busting workshop were the least likely to arrive early or even on time?
[BTW, I'm now offering my own procrastination-busing workshop, using a combination of Tiny Habits coaching plus insights from Positive Intelligence about how we all 'self-sabotage'.]
What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘procrastination’? Many people will immediately think of difficult or unpleasant tasks, like filling in tax returns, that they find excuses to avoid, but that’s not the full story. I believe most of us are also perfectly capable of putting off doing things that we really want to do, and that we fully expect to enjoy doing. (Have you ever had the experience of going for a swim at the local pool, or a walk in the park, or spending time with a friend you don’t see regularly and saying to yourself ‘This is great! I’m definitely going to do it more often!’ And then, somehow, six months or a few years pass before you do it again, and you have the same thought?)
When a friend of mine was struggling to finish his PhD dissertation, he found himself in a painful procrastination loop, avoiding both difficult tasks and enjoyable activities: he would delay getting started on his work in the morning, not make much progress over the course of the day, and then cancel plans to socialise in the evening, thinking he needed to stay in and get more writing done. But the writing would go slowly, he would ‘take a short break’, and end up watching too many episodes of his favourite box set. (By the way, this story pre-dates Netflix.) At some point during the evening, he would realise that he would have done better to go out with his friends after all. But the next day the cycle would repeat itself. (In case you’re worried, this story has a happy ending. My friend got his PhD in the end and his social life recovered from the many months of neglect.)
Research shows that most people procrastinate some of the time and that about twenty per cent of us are chronic procrastinators, with often devastating consequences for our health, wellbeing, and professional success. But just knowing that procrastination is bad for us doesn’t necessarily help anyone stop doing it. As Piers Steel, a Canadian ‘professor of procrastination’ has pointed out, even Samuel Johnson, who 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’, nevertheless ‘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.’
In a separate article, Steel considers the 'myth' that procrastination is good for creativity. Although Adam Grant has popularised this idea, through his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World and the TED talk that accompanied it, Steel has yet to be convinced. He points out that there is a difference between procrastination and simple delay. All procrastination is delay, but not all forms of delay constitute procrastination. Procrastination, he says, is generally defined by researchers as delaying doing something even though we expect that the delay will be harmful. A lot of the evidence that some researchers have put forward for the benefits of procrastination, Steel argues, just demonstrates the benefits of simple delay. In my own experience, delay provides an incubation period, allowing the unconscious mind to work on a problem in the background.
Another argument that procrastinators often use is that the delay leads to them working under pressure and, they say, they do their best work that way. That might be true, but only because they do most of their work under time pressure; perhaps they would do even better work if they just started earlier? One of the take-aways from Grant’s TED talk is that, if we want to produce more original work, we should be ‘quick to start but slow to finish’. In other words, get started asap, but give yourself as much time as possible to finish, even if it means revising your work while the errand boy waits outside.
By the way, it’s worth watching Grant’s TED talk just for the Martin Luther King example: King kept revising his famous speech until the very last moment, adding the words ‘I have a dream’ just before he reached the podium.
p.s. If procrastination is an issue for you, consider joining me new programme 'The Procrastination Fix'. We'll use awareness of your self-sabotaging tendencies, plus Tiny Habits, to help you untangle the thoughts and behaviours that lead to your own procrastination tendencies.