By Maggie Dugan
A skilled procrastinator can be highly innovative, inventing all sorts of reasons not to do something, conceiving clever excuses to delay starting or not to have finished. If you have to rely on someone who’s expert at this kind of delaying, it can be maddening. If you’re the procrastinator putting off your own projects, it can be stressful, for you as much for anyone who’s tapping their foot impatiently behind you.
But why do we procrastinate? I’d like to think it’s because we’re not ready. We don’t have enough of something – information, research, ideas, inspiration, stamina – we’re lacking (or so we think) and some part of us feels we cannot start, or continue, until we fill that need.
But that’s probably not the case, according to the most comprehensive research on procrastination. Piers Steel, a professor at the University of Calgary, spent ten years correlating nearly 700 other research studies to try and understand what he calls a self-regulatory failure. Steel learned that procrastination is commonplace – especially in academia where 95% of people procrastinate – and it’s on the rise, in every sector, and organizations are paying the price in time, productivity and money.
Steel’s conclusion about why we procrastinate? Immediate gratification. We’ll do a minor errand or task (like email) to get the satisfaction of completing something now, rather than doing the thing that’s more important but won’t reward us until the future. Steel puts the complexity of this slightly neurotic condition into a mathematical equation, called the Temporal Motivation Theory:
The utility of the task equals the product of its expectancy (or self confidence) and its value, divided by the product of its immediacy and the sensitivity to delay. When the delay is low – meaning you get a payoff sooner – it raises the utility. Of course you can also raise the utility by increasing the value, which is what happens when a really important, exciting new project lands on your desk and pushes the other work aside. But most of us tend to tinker with the delay factor – it’s more immediate.
Steel’s research aligns with many of the self-help books written about time management, casting procrastination in a negative light, the irresponsible delaying of a task because it is unpleasant, because it’s too hard or too big. But could procrastination have some positive attributes? Can it be useful? Can it cause a necessary delay, one that actually reinforces the creative process?
Then it might be called incubation: letting an idea rest, allowing a question to simmer while our brains consider it, giving the subconscious a chance to deliver its mysterious energy to the task at hand. Taking a break, to go for a walk, have a cup of tea, read emails or surf the web – to think about something else for a day or two, or a week or longer – can result in a shift in perspective that enhances the ultimate outcome.
The challenge is to distinguish between procrastination and incubation. Are you avoiding something because you don’t know how to start? Or have you done some thinking and legwork but now your ideas seem stale or you feel like you’re a bit tired or up against a wall, and maybe you do need to stop for a while and rest your thinking? Maybe this is the general rule: If the postponement is useful and has an outcome that creates something of higher quality and greater depth, then it’s incubation. If it’s just a method of avoidance, it’s procrastination.
Essayist Paul Graham makes the distinction between good and bad procrastination. He says if you put off the small stuff, the banal errands of your life – your bills, filing taxes, laundry – to focus on something that’s important, that’s a good procrastination. The bad kind is when those errands keep you busy and feeling productive, but keep you from doing the real work you’ve set out to do. “You’re ‘getting things done.’ Just the wrong things.”
But the real work, each one of those big, important projects – i.e. the work with high expectancy and high value – has a fear factor associated with it. It’s a lot of work. It’s hard. It’s not clear how to do it. You could fail. That’s when the negative neurosis kicks in, and we feeling guilty for what we haven’t done or stressed about what we may never be able to accomplish. This negative response (the sensitivity to the delay) begets more negativity, and the downward spiral begins. That’s when the lesser tasks start to look intriguing, a short-term fix that gives an apparent feeling of utility.
It’s taken me months to write this post. I did way too much research, read too many articles and made notes about too many things I wanted to say. Each day, each week, the task moved forward on my ‘to-do’ list, haunting me. I’d written a rough draft, but I couldn’t bring myself to edit it. It became a bit ironic, my procrastination about writing about procrastination.
Graham’s essay offered an interesting solution: “the way to ‘solve’ the problem of procrastination is to let delight pull you instead of making a to-do list push you.” So I took a break from writing the article. I pulled it off my to-do list. But I kept the topic in front of me, on a bright post-it note on my desk, each day thinking about it a little, reframing it, shifting it from something I had to do to something that intrigued me again.
Procrastination isn’t such a terrible thing; it is such a close relation to incubation, which can be an important component in the innovation process. It’s the negative associations we make about procrastinating that slow us down. So instead of focusing on what’s not happening, perhaps the key is to turn our attention to the outcome we desire – this also correlates to the innovation process – and then creativity we put into avoiding a task or challenge can be reassigned to tackling it.
Know further: Read about Dr. Piers Steel’s research in his book The Procrastination Equation. Some more pondering about procrastination. Hints on how to manage procrastination or change your habits. To focus on the desire outcome rather than the problem, how to keep your focus during the workday.