The procrastination habit
Like most people, I have certain faults, and one of them is a tendency to procrastinate.
Over time, I’ve made my peace with this bad habit.
Not because I enjoy procrastinating, because I don’t, but because I regard it as inevitable, and make time for it in my schedule.
Take this column.
I’d love to write it earlier in the week, but I hardly ever do. And I’m aware of this, and so it’s not exactly a surprise when I’m sitting here late Thursday afternoon, trying to write this thing. I’m well aware that my spurts of writing are going to be interrupted by periodic detours to the Internet, to check the latest sports news and news updates and that sort of thing.
My procrastination spills into almost every realm.
I’m slow to make telephone calls and pay bills, to make appointments and finish my work.
I recently took the trouble to see my doctor to get a referral to a podiatrist, and for over a month I carried the referral slip around in my bag, seemingly unable to pick up the phone and schedule a visit.
For months, I had been plagued by a sore left foot, and I had no idea why.
The soreness wasn’t anything extreme — I could hike and bike and do pretty much anything I wanted, whenever I wanted to. But the soreness worsened during physical activity and sometimes caused a mild limp when I got out of bed in the morning.
When a 30-minute walk on the beach resulted in what I considered a disproportionate level of soreness, I decided there was no reason to spend the rest of my life in pain, no matter how minor, and that I should see a specialist. Four months later, I finally took action. At that point, I’d postponed making the appointment for so long that scheduling it felt like a major accomplishment. That’s how it is when you’re a chronic procrastinator — completing the smallest of tasks often feels like a major breakthrough.
One of the basic mysteries of life is why people procrastinate.
A friend recently posed an interesting theory. She suggested people procrastinate on the off-chance that they’ll die before it becomes necessary to complete the dreaded task. The thinking, then, is something along the lines of: If I put off going to the dentist for as long as possible, well, maybe I’ll luck out, and never have to go! In other words, why rush, when tragedy might be lurking around the corner?
It’s an interesting theory, but I don’t buy it.
Procrastinating is, at heart, irrational, and my friend’s thinking, as skewed and wacky as it is, suggests a degree of rationality that largely doesn’t exist.
For one thing, I don’t feel in control when I procrastinate; rather, I feel trapped, frustrated by my inability to move at a less glacial pace. Nor do I ever conduct a cost-benefit analysis, where I consider the possibility that if I sit at my computer for a long time, staring at a blank page, maybe the ceiling will fall on my head, and I won’t have to finish this column.
The New Yorker recently published a piece pondering why people procrastinate.
“Procrastination interests philosophers because of its underlying irrationality,” the article suggests.
The author, James Surowiecki, then tells the story of a Nobel-winning economist who was asked to mail a box of clothes from India, where he was living, to the United States but put off doing it for more than eight months. (A length of time that makes my inability to schedule an appointment with a podiatrist pale in comparison.)
Procrastination, Surowiecki explains, is “a powerful example of what the Greeks called akrasia — doing something against one’s own better judgment. . . . In other words, if you’re simply saying ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ you’re not really procrastinating. Knowingly delaying because you think that’s the most efficient use of your time doesn’t count, either. The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people. This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: Although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.”
Delaying a trip to the podiatrist certainly didn’t make me any happier.
My foot continued to hurt, and I continued to complain about it.
“I think I need to see a podiatrist,” I would tell people, in an effort to psych myself up to schedule the appointment.
I finally got in to see the podiatrist last week; after my months of procrastination, I was a little disappointed when the appointment only lasted 10 minutes. During this brief visit, I learned that I have an extremely tight Achilles tendon.
“If you stretch your Achilles and heat it every day for the rest of your life, you should be fine,” the podiatrist informed me.
If there’s one thing I find more irritating than procrastination, it’s being told I’m going to have to do something every day for the rest of my life.
But I’d better get over it.
Because putting things off will get me nowhere.
And I'll feel even more frustrated than I am now.
Foss Forward makes a weekly appearance in print, in The Gazette’s Saturday Lifestyles section. You can email Sara at firstname.lastname@example.org.