Procrastination rules

More Americans than ever are concerned they're putting off work too much -- but science suggests it may not be bad

Published July 2, 2012 1:00AM (EDT)

   (<a href=''>fotogiunta</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(fotogiunta via Shutterstock)

This article was adapted from the new book "Wait: The Art and Science of Delay."

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.

Another group of psychologists gives procrastination a more positive spin, depending in large part on the amount of energy the procrastinator expends. So-called active procrastination is smart: it simply means managing delay, putting off projects that really don’t need to be done right away. In contrast, passive procrastination is dumb, equivalent to laziness. This group says procrastination might be good or bad, depending on how much effort we put into it.

Economists approach procrastination in yet another way. One group observes how common it is, and asks—using the standard classical economics move—how something can be irrational if it is so widespread.

Why would human beings engage in procrastination if it weren’t somehow making them better off? Carolyn Fischer, a public finance and natural resources economist, developed a clever mathematical model to show how procrastination can be in our best interests.

A second strand of economics, the one originated by George Akerlof, laid the groundwork for Piers Steel and dozens of other prominent economists and psychologists who see procrastination as closely tied to impatience. Procrastination has become a hot subfield in economics, but if we asked three economists about procrastination, we might get five different opinions.

There are also camps of historians with diametrically opposed views. One group points to evidence that procrastination has been around forever and views it as a deeply entrenched phenomenon at the core of human nature, at least since St. Augustine’s proclamation: “Please, Lord, make me chaste, just not today!” Another group sees procrastination as a relatively recent phenomenon driven by technology, urbanization, and the temptations of modern life.

Neuroscientists are also investigating: recent fMRI studies have helped scholars map some of our procrastination-related reactions to different regions of the brain. Other disciplines now cite these multicolor brain scans, which look much cooler than anything a psychologist or economist or historian might do. There are burgeoning combo-disciplines, including neuroeconomics and neurofinance, each of which points to parts of the brain that might be the source of our irrational delay.

On one thing nearly everyone agrees: virtually all of us, at least some of the time, feel the urge to procrastinate. And there is wisdom in each camp. Paul Kedrosky’s bemused skepticism about what he supposedly needs to get done works well for creative, outside-the-box thinkers. The psychologists Joseph Ferrari, Jane Burka, and Piers Steel help chronic procrastinators who suffer from paralyzing stress and negative self-esteem. The various perspectives from economics and history are enlightening, too, like different views of a cathedral. Yet notwithstanding all of the books, websites, and self-help courses on the topic, there is no grand unified theory of procrastination.

Some people call procrastination a disease, a mental disorder related to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, bipolar illness, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sleep problems, and brain and thyroid anomalies. Not surprisingly, if procrastination is viewed so negatively, treatments will be designed to eradicate its presence and influence. But we don’t necessarily need to take such a draconian approach. If our problems are the result of high discount rates, so that we make decisions that leave us worse off, then procrastination is an evil and we should make every effort to stop. But often we use the term to describe behavior that is not so bad. Sometimes it is good to procrastinate.

In 2005, Paul Graham, a computer programmer, investor, writer, and painter, wrote an essay called “Good and Bad Procrastination.” He opens by saying, “The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn’t always bad? Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible.”

Graham notes that when we procrastinate we don’t work on something. However, he says, we are always not working on something. In fact, whatever we are doing, we are by definition not working on everything else. For Graham, the issue is not how to stop procrastinating, since we will always be not working on something, and thus procrastinating. Instead, our real challenge is to figure out how to procrastinate well—how to work on something that is more important than the something we are not working on. In thinking about procrastination, Graham says what matters most is comparing what we are working on with what we aren’t.

Francesco Guerrera, an editor at the Wall Street Journal, learned how to manage his time by procrastinating during college. Not only did he develop the ability to write quickly at the last minute, but he learned how to manage a list of priorities, a skill he uses constantly to this day: “Now, most of it happens naturally. I have a bunch of things I have to do. The list of what I have to do within a certain time sort of forms itself. The other stuff is procrastinated.”

For projects that require different amounts of time, Guerrera makes separate lists. He describes a technique he and many other journalists use: “We have two sets of notebooks, a small one and a big one. The small one is for immediate day-to-day stories, the work we have to do right away. The big one is for big thoughts, features and stories that have some time. There’s an actual physical distinction between our immediate stories and the ones we can wait on. The physical form of two notebooks is our way of saying it’s too overwhelming to do both at the same time.”

Guerrera bristles at the suggestion that there is something wrong with his behavior. He told me he is really just managing delay: “This is not like traditional procrastination. It’s a way we form our priorities. It’s not that I’m delaying because I don’t want to do something. I’m delaying because I can’t. It’s out of necessity.” As Leonard Bernstein said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.”

If we aren’t working at all, we are being slothful. If we are working on something unimportant, we are showing bad judgment. But if we are working on something important, then does it really make sense to judge us negatively for not working on something less important? If we put off errands because we are trying to cure cancer, are we really procrastinating? And if that is the meaning of procrastination, why is it so bad?

For Paul Graham, procrastination is all about trade-offs. We are constantly trading off what we are doing now against what we might do in the future. As long as we are doing that in a reasonable way, it doesn’t matter that we are putting some things off.

From the book "Wait" by Frank Partnoy.  Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.  Copyright © 2012.

By Frank Partnoy

Frank Partnoy is the author of "F.I.A.S.C.O.," "Infectious Greed," and "The Match King." Formerly an investment banker at Morgan Stanley and a practicing corporate lawyer, he is one of the world’s leading experts on market regulation and is a frequent commentator for the Financial Times, the New York Times, NPR, and CBS’s 60 Minutes. Partnoy is a graduate of Yale Law School and is the George E. Barrett Professor of Law and Finance and the founding director of the Center for Corporate and Securities Law at the University of San Diego.

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