Viewpoint: Why do we procrastinate so much?

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As autumn approaches people finish off vital DIY, get ready to start a new job or prepare for school. At least, they would do if they weren't in the grip of procrastination, writes Rowan Pelling.

As the clock ticks steadily towards September 300,000 embryonic undergraduates across the UK are struggling to remember how it feels to compose an essay - or, more likely, how it feels NOT to write that thesis or dissertation.

Procrastination is the student's curse, as the student prince, Hamlet, knew only too well. What are university libraries for, if not for staring into space, gazing at sexy peers, logging on to iTunes and planning your evening's drinking?

Nowadays Hamlet's prevarications would be even more prolonged as he'd have to tweet his fears and try them out on Facebook friends.

Find out more

Rowan Pelling
  • Helping Hamlet: Can Science Cure Procrastination?, presented by Rowan Pelling, is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 BST on Tuesday 28 August

TS Eliot believed that Hamlet was "most certainly an artistic failure".

He felt the Prince of Denmark's turmoil was disproportionate to the sequence of events leading up to it, meaning audiences couldn't share his emotions. I disagree.

I am certain that Hamlet has long remained the most celebrated play in the English language because so many of us - students, or not - have experienced the horror of crippling indecision and compulsive delaying tactics.

Prof Piers Steel of the Haskayne School of Business at the University of Calgary, author of The Procrastination Equation, has conducted extensive research into the topic. He found that 95% of us procrastinate at some point.

A successful procrastinator

  • Quintus Fabius Maximus, Roman general of the 3rd Century, BC was initially given the nickname "Cunctator" - the Delayer - as an insult
  • But his strategy of avoiding battle with Hannibal and the Carthaginians helped turn the tide in the Second Punic War
  • The poet Ennius wrote: "One man by delaying restored the state to us."
  • The socialist Fabian Society is named after him
  • As is Fabian Strategy in modern military theory

Prof Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University Chicago, the author of Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, has found that 20% of the population of the world are chronic procrastinators, complicating their lives, and probably shortening them, with their incessant delaying and task avoidance.

The figures are rather chilling. Procrastinators are less wealthy, less healthy and less happy than those who don't delay.

And worse, the little stories we tell ourselves to justify our behaviour are all wrong.

We are perfectionists who do our best work under pressure? Baloney. Work done at the last minute has more mistakes in it than when it is done on time.

Our behaviour inconveniences others, annoys our loved ones and leaves us feeling flustered and ashamed.

Start Quote

Procrastination is the thief of time”

End Quote Edward Young Poet

Procrastination feels particularly delinquent in a society that views swift action as commendable and even, at times, a moral good. Leaders who speed into conflicts, such as Margaret Thatcher in the Falklands War and George Bush in Iraq, are generally more widely admired than those that preach caution.

Malcolm Gladwell's blockbuster book Blink, which investigated what Gladwell calls "rapid cognition… the kind of thinking that happens in the blink of an eye", was interpreted by many as an eulogy to gut decisions.

Those of us who habitually put off key decisions for weeks, months, or even years, are increasingly in danger of being seen as dinosaurs.

Start Quote

Procrastination is the bad habit of putting off until the day after tomorrow what should have been done the day before yesterday”

End Quote Napoleon Hill US self-help writer

I am, as you will have guessed, a fully paid-up member of the hardcore procrastinators' gang. I never open bank statements, I flee from urgent emails, I haven't filed a tax return for four years and I cannot write anything (although journalism is my living) until the deadline's savaging my ankles.

I have long felt profound empathy for the late Douglas Adams, author of the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and the literary world's most notorious procrastinator, who once said: "I love deadlines - I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by."

The trouble is that no one else enjoys seeing the deadline bolt by. The ire of the tutor who is handed an essay late is as nothing to the boss who's told the marketing plan won't be with her for another week or the publisher who's missing a book from their autumn schedule.

Start Quote

Carpe diem”

End Quote Horace Roman self-help writer

People rage, tears fall, excuses (and blatant lies) are offered and jobs lost. Hyper-organised, punctual types simply cannot understand the self-loathing, inefficiency and despair of the habitual task-avoider, nor the addictive quality of their compulsion.

The New York writer Sheryl Canter even set up ProcrastinatorsAnonymous.org - in a deliberate mirroring of AA - so sufferers could recognise, band together, and prevent, the dread consequences of constantly putting off today what you could do in the next millennium.

Start Quote

At thirty, man suspects himself a fool/Knows it at forty, and reforms his plan/At fifty chides his infamous delay/Pushes his prudent purpose to resolve/In all the magnanimity of thought/Resolves, and re-resolves; then dies the same”

End Quote Edward Young

So all procrastinators should feel relieved that social scientists have thrown the weight of their research facilities behind understanding the malaise and offering strategies to control it.

Piers Steel believes humankind is hardwired to procrastinate but suggests a few good ways of getting through the task in hand. The first one is obvious - break the task down into small chunks and work your way through them methodically.

The other is ingenious - give a trusted friend £50 and tell them that if you don't complete the task you have undertaken they can give it away to a political party or cause you hate.

Two key strategies have worked wonders for me. The first was my decision to employ a school leaver to wade through, sort and file my receipts, invoices and correspondence. Releasing my chaos to her was like pulling teeth at first, then - as with all dental work - came the blessed relief and improved smile.

The second breakthrough - courtesy of a session with the writer and psychoanalyst Susie Orbach - was pinpointing and acknowledging how closely my procrastination was linked to the turmoil of adolescence.

I have spent two and a half decades refusing to be an adult and accept dreary responsibilities.

Start Quote

Don't wait. The time will never be just right”

End Quote Napoleon Hill

In short, I have barely moved an inch from the task-shy, over-sleeping, overdrawn, essay-avoiding, easily distracted student I was in 1986 - but I am now the mother of two children, with a mortgage to pay, work to complete, and other people's happiness and peace of mind dependent on mine.

So, if the question is, "To procrastinate, or not to procrastinate?" my answer is, stuff Hamlet, my procrastinating days are over.

Readers' stories of epic procrastination will be published at a later date.

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