Last week we posted a short animation showing the many ways in which we end up avoiding work. Since then it feels like everyone is in a procrastination state of mind.
First there is the book review for “The Thief of Time” in The New Yorker. In it we learn
what the Greeks called akrasia—doing something against one’s own better judgment. Piers Steel defines procrastination as willingly deferring something even though you expect the delay to make you worse off.
Most of the contributors to the new book agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks. In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals.
Much of procrastinating is an inner negotiation about what should happen, and why.
The philosopher Mark Kingwell puts it in existential terms: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing… . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.”
The Procrastinators is a series of 11 episodes of monologues about procrastination produced by Dutch artist duo Lernert & Sander. “Artists, writers and filmmakers talk about concentration, focus and the fine art of wasting their time.”
Clearly the many ways in which we procrastinate are universal.
An interesting pattern begins to emerge from all these accounts of procrastination. Prolific creators often actively engage in procrastination in a methodical and disciplined way. Apparently writers can not begin to work unless their households are sparkly clean.
I view this as less procrastination and more psychological distancing.
In the article “An Easy Way To Increase Creativity,” published in Scientific American, Oren Shapira and Nira Liberman state
scientists have demonstrated that increasing psychological distance so that a problem feels farther away can actually increase creativity.
We then can conclude there are degrees of procrastination and one of those degrees is less about avoiding work and completely about letting the subconscious percolate. Cleaning the kitchen and organizing the bookshelf as a way of thinking. The trick is to know what is motivating our desire not to work.
On those times when I find myself procrastinating I stop and ask myself: what are you so afraid of that this is the better choice? That usually gets me going again.