Instant Gratification From Doing Nothing
The rewards for procrastination are immediate, whereas the payback for taking action is sometime in the future and not at all guaranteed. So by some form of logical analysis, the choice to delay doing something is the wise one. Eventually, this article may get written.
Write the essay. File the taxes. Finish that work report. Hang on; maybe I can get past that tricky level of Bejeweled.
Mop the kitchen floor. Wash the car. Make an appointment with the dentist. Oooh look a book.
If you haven’t procrastinated you may not be human. We all do it.
The Very Well Mind says:
“An estimated 25 to 75 percent of college students procrastinate on academic work.” That’s such a wide statistical margin that it suggests someone didn’t complete their study.
Joseph Ferrari is a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago and he seems to have completed his assignment to the point of publishing his 2010 book Still Procrastinating: The No Regret Guide to Getting It Done.
He says the chronic I’ll-do-it-later brigade make up 20 percent of the American adult population. These are people for whom procrastination is a way of life. They are in the mall buying presents on Christmas Eve. They pay penalties for filing their taxes late. They drive around with expired license-plate stickers.
For these people, the arrival of social media was a diamond-encrusted gift.
The Psychology of Procrastination
If you research procrastination (but wait, the cat needs a cuddle), the words “self-regulation” keep popping up.
“True procrastination is a complicated failure of self-regulation: experts define it as the voluntary delay of some important task that we intend to do, despite knowing that we’ll suffer as a result.” (Eric Jaffe, the Association for Psychological Science).
The self-regulating mechanism, when it doesn’t fail, is what keeps us from overeating, drinking heavily, spending impulsively, or leaving the dishes in the sink in the hope they’ll wash themselves.
Timothy Pychyl is with Carleton University, Canada. He says “I think the basic notion of procrastination as self-regulation failure is pretty clear. You know what you ought to do and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it. It’s that gap between intention and action.”
Alexander Rozental is a psychologist at the Karolinska Institutet in Sweden. He studies procrastination and told Time magazine:
“People procrastinate because of a lack of value [associated with the task]; because they expect that they’re not going to achieve the value they’re trying to achieve; because the value is too far from you in terms of time; or because you’re very impulsive as a person.”
What all the researchers conclude, sadly, is that procrastination is bad. It’s self-defeating, it causes stress, and, when tasks are finally completed, they are of lower quality.
Putting things off seems to be an affliction that hits writers more than others.
Back in the day, the paper needed to be arranged in just the right spot on the desk. What’s this? I’ve only got HB pencils when I need 2Bs. Or the ink in the pen should be blue/black, not black.
Nowadays, of course, we’ve got Candy Crush, Freecell, and Angry Birds to help delay the onset of work.
Victor Hugo found many ways to avoid sitting down to write. He was aware of his procrastination and developed a solution; he had every stitch of clothing he owned removed from his home. Now, in a state of nature, he had no alternatives but to write.
Truman Capote didn’t go the buck naked route and never conquered his inability to buckle down to work. He had a contract with Random House for $1 million to deliver his masterpiece Answered Prayers by March 1981.
He started writing the novel in the early 1970s; by the time he died in 1984 he had only finished three chapters. The drugs and booze that killed him were certainly a factor in his failure to get his work done and ensured that he did not postpone his death.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was another writer who had trouble overcoming inertia. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is about the only poem he completed.
Richard Brinsley Sheridan is perhaps the champion of just making a deadline. In May 1777, his play The School for Scandal was actually in its opening night performance with the last act not finished. He managed the scribble the actor’s lines before the final curtain. And, Mozart didn't finish the overture to his opera Don Giovanni until the night before its premiere.
Other writers said to be seized by the delaying tactic include, Margaret Atwood, Franz Kafka, Samuel Johnson, and Graham Greene.
Some might say uncharitably that writers are lazy. A more nuanced view is that some quiet time accompanied by a chilled glass of Pino Grigio will encourage the muse to finish a paragraph.
Author and journalist Susan Orlean is familiar with the process: “I think of myself as something of a connoisseur of procrastination, creative and dogged in my approach to not getting things done.”
- Every year in March, Procrastination Week is held, but an expert procrastinator can delay celebrating until September, or even, not at all.
- Advertising executive Les Waas is the President of the Procrastination Club of America. Actually, he’s the acting president because, although the club was formed in 1957, it hasn’t got around to holding an election for high office yet.
- Psychologist Elizabeth Lombardo has written an article for Psychology Today (here) about how to overcome procrastination. It's doubtful that any procrastinators have gotten around to reading it..
- “Capote’s Swan Dive.” Sam Kashner, Vanity Fair, December 2012.
- “The Psychology Behind Why We Wait Until the Last Minute to Do Things.” Kendra Cherry, The Very Well Mind, January 2019.
- “Psychologists Explain Why You Procrastinate — And How to Stop.” Jamie Ducharme, Time, June 29, 2018.
- “Self-regulation Failure (Part 1): Goal Setting and Monitoring.” Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., Psychology Today, February 16, 2009.
- “Why Wait? The Science Behind Procrastination.” Eric Jaffe, Association for Psychological Science Observer, April 2013.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2022 Rupert Taylor