You may have thought, the last time you blew off work on a presentation to watch “How I Met Your Mother,” that you were just slacking. But from another angle you were actually engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time.
This is but one insight in a marvelous piece called “Later” that James Surowiecki wrote for The New Yorker. The article is partly a review of a new book called The Thief of Time, a collection of essays on the subject of procrastination.
What is procrastination?
… 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.
The extended will
Another important concept that Surowiecki eloquently describes is “the extended will,” a phrase coined by Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson. It describes “external tools and techniques to help the parts of our selves that want to work.”
How strong is your extended will?
Earlier I wrote about the need to exercise care when putting future objects in your path. Before digital productivity systems, we were forced to do this.
But these days, ubiquitous task systems can quickly turn into instruments of self-flagellation for the productivity zealot. Modern productivity tools invite you to task everything. And when you don’t, can’t, or simply lose the will to get it all done, you feel like shit.
Is your task system making you more productive happier?
Seriously, think about it. If you check off nine out of ten things, what lingers in your head at the end of the day? The nine successes or the one "failure?"
When nailing nine out of ten feels worse than three out of three, it's not a productivity failure; it's a failure of conscience.
Procrastination as an asset
In the past year, I’ve learned that procrastination is a voice that should not be ignored. If interpreted correctly, it can actually be very helpful in figuring out what shouldn’t be done.
That voice of guilt may really be a voice of reason.
Procrastination is a guiding light that you should follow regularly – maybe once a week. Follow it to the delete button. Let it help you find the waste on your task list. Let it help you focus on the things that mean the most to you.
Think of [tasks] as ducks you want to shoot rather than raise. -Merlin Mann
It's time to put some ducks (and you) out of misery.
This stuff is more important than ever
Surowiecki notes that “the percentage of people who admitted to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002.”
In the last year or so, I've begun to surmise that computers are the source of our obsession with multitasking and hyper-productivity. Computers are quite good at multitasking and unconditionally taking orders. People, not so much. But people learn by example, and many of us observe computers all day long.
We shape our tools. And then our tools shape us. -Marshal McLuhan
Communicate, listen (to yourself)
The next time you feel guilty about not getting something done, listen to that voice more closely. Consider why you didn’t get it all done. Question whether the thing you skipped was really worth doing anyway.
Question the reach of your extended will.
And add a little hedonism to your workflow. Why the hell not? Doing the things you want to do is not always a bad thing. In fact, it may ultimately be the path of least resistance to success.
Let me know how you really feel about procrastination.