Why We Procrastinate…

20 10 2010

Why do we procrastinate? If you’ve every been on a deadline whether it be school assignments or work projects, most all of us have experienced procrastination. No, experienced is too passive. Most of us have procrastinated. And it’s a condition that haunts us over and over again no matter how many times we resolutely proclaim, “I will not do this next time!” Here are some startling stats on the dangers of procrastination, which makes our proclivity towards the phenomenon more puzzling:

Each year, Americans waste hundreds of millions of dollars because they don’t file their taxes on time. The Harvard economist David Laibson has shown that American workers have forgone huge amounts of money in matching 401(k) contributions because they never got around to signing up for a retirement plan. Seventy per cent of patients suffering from glaucoma risk blindness because they don’t use their eyedrops regularly. Procrastination also inflicts major costs on businesses and governments. The recent crisis of the euro was exacerbated by the German government’s dithering, and the decline of the American auto industry, exemplified by the bankruptcy of G.M., was due in part to executives’ penchant for delaying tough decisions.
These stats come from the very intriguing article in The New Yorker by James Surowiecki titled, “Later“. Surowiecki further explores why we engage in this, not only baleful, but paradoxical act. The possible reasons for participating in what he says the Greeks called akrasia (or doing something against one’s own better judgment) are ignorance, Elster’s “the planning fallacy”, “allures of the salient present”, and the very fascinating Schelling’s “the divided self”. It would be too reductionistic to choose one of the explanations as a human being or the human will is not simple subject of study, but I find procrastination to be a result of mainly the combination of the “allures of the salient present” and ignorance. Surowiecki does mention this but there is never a case when the future is more experientially salient than the present. By nature of time, the future will always become the present and because it is the case, it is always easier to choose immediate gratification over delayed gratification. It is our lowered sense for the joy of delayed gratification in our accelerated technological society, which in part drives us toward procrastination. But the situation is not merely a cause of circumstances, it is also a problem of the will. The Surowiecki describes a possible reason as ignorance, but to nuance it more correctly, it is self-deception that causes procrastination. It is the tendency to consciously at first and later habitually, trick oneself into thinking that “It’ll be ok to push it off a little”, “This immediate distraction is more enjoyable than the joy that comes after finishing the task”, “This distraction now is worth the stress I may experience later.” Little by little the deception grows until it is unrecognizable and is guised under the pardonable label of ‘ignorance.’
So is there a solution to this apparent insurmountable problem of humanity? Surowiecki suggests an external remedy of self-binding, giving the example of Ulysses tying himself to the pole to avoid the immediate lure of the Sirens to keep his long term goal a viability, but he does not suggest much on the internal remedy for procrastination. He only gives a quick comment of how strengthening the will, like strengthening muscles, can be of help fight tendencies towards delay. I do believe that changing circumstances to be favorable is helpful, but I do believe that we do not nurture our wills as they once were. And exercising the will is never detached from circumstances, rather it is entirely tied to the making the future salient more so than, or at least as much as the present. How is this done? With hope. Surowiecki noted that the future will always become the present, but hope is something that always and only exists in the future. Once hope enters into the present it becomes something else. When one makes that hope so salient, to the point it seems tangible, it can strengthen the will to overcome the distractions of the immediate, allowing the human mind to attend to the task at hand while procrastinating on procrastination. 

Here is a cheesy yet practical ending to a long philosophical post. This commercial helps me strengthen my will towards tasting what is ahead in view of the long tedious preparation at hand.

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