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The Secret Benefits of Procrastination

Our society is obsessed with productivity and efficiency, and we despise procrastination. But it wasn't always so.
 
 
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Our society is obsessed with productivity and efficiency, and we despise procrastination. The early Americans imported the Earl of Chesterfield’s admonition: “No idleness, no laziness, no procrastination: never put off till tomorrow what you can do today.” They read Jonathan Edwards’s sermon “Procrastination, or The Sin and Folly of Depending on Future Time.” They built on the Puritan work ethic, which wasn’t much fun, but became a major part of American culture. Over time, the admonitions from Chesterfield and Edwards seeped into everyday life, along with the biblical references that Edwards peppered throughout his speech, especially Proverbs 27:1, which advises, “Boast not thyself of tomorrow; for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.”

And then, beginning in the 1970s, the do-it-now anti-procrastination industry burst onto the scene. Managers began following Peter Drucker, the consultant, who advised, “First things first; second things not at all.” Jane Burka and Lenora Yuen wrote a best seller about how to avoid procrastinating, and their “Procrastination Workshops” became popular. Self-help guru Stephen Covey told us that highly effective people do “first things first.” David Allen coached us to “Get Things Done.”

Over time we began to feel terribly guilty about procrastinating, yet we did it even more. The percentage of people who say they procrastinate “often” has increased sixfold since 1978. Students report spending over one-third of their time procrastinating. According to some studies, nearly one in five adults is a “chronic” procrastinator. Our focus on procrastination is relentless. America really has become a “Procrasti-Nation.”

But it wasn’t always so. In ancient Egypt and Rome, procrastination was thought to be useful and wise. Only a handful of early writers, such as Cicero and Thucydides, admonished people not to delay. Until the mid-eighteenth century, procrastination-hating was a minority view.

Many iconic figures have been inveterate procrastinators, from St. Augustine to Leonardo da Vinci to Duke Ellington to Agatha Christie to John Huston to Bill Clinton. Like many of my colleagues and friends, I tend to procrastinate, and I’ve always bristled at being told that was bad. To the extent I have creative breakthroughs (and they don’t come often), it is because I put something off, not because I meet a deadline. Recent procrastination research suggests I am not alone. Studies find that although procrastination is problematic for some people, others can procrastinate but still get plenty done without stress, coping problems, or low self-esteem.

When the Wall Street Journal recently reported on some “fans of procrastination,” several psychologists who research procrastination shot back. They fumed at the notion that Paul Kedrosky, a successful entrepreneur, would, as he said, “circle topics like a dog trying to tromp down a nice place to sleep.” Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University, retorted, “The misperception of our culture is that it’s OK to procrastinate. A bigger misperception is that it isn’t a serious problem.” Jane Burka, the psychologist and author, joined Ferrari, saying procrastinators are people who fear failure, success, or being controlled: “It’s a way of protecting yourself from having your true abilities evaluated.” Kedrosky, however, seemed bemused by this criticism, citing the “nagging suspicion that a lot of the things that I get asked to do I don’t actually have to do.”

Academics who study procrastination fall into camps with about as much in common as the tribes of Afghanistan. Many psychologists follow a definition from Piers Steel, a leading researcher, that procrastination is “irrational” delay—in other words, we procrastinate when we know we are acting against our own best interests. However, psychologists don’t agree about what causes our irrationality. Is it dark thoughts, behaviors, and personality traits? Compulsiveness? Is it “unconscious death anxiety”? Rebellion at the finality of existence? Some say the cause is overly indulgent parenting, while others claim it is overly demanding parenting.

 
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