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We All Do It. Here's An Interesting and Plausible Explanation
on January 1, 2011
If I come away from a book with one new idea or a fresh take on a familiar one, I consider the read worthwhile. The takeaway in Piers Steel's `The Procrastination Equation' is the notion that procrastination, contrary to popular perception, is neither the result of perfectionism nor of simple laziness.
Perfectionism might be a comforting rationale (`If I can't do something to my exacting high standards, it's a real struggle for me to do it at all.'). Nice try but, according to Steel and his research, true perfectionists actually accomplish quite a lot in spite of their high standards. And blaming it all on laziness is a too simple cop-out that our culture too often buys into with stereotypes.
For most of us, according to the author, the root cause of this tendency to delay tasks is impulsiveness, which lies at the core of a complex interplay of personality traits and environment. It's not a question of what we can't bring ourselves to do but rather a question of what we too easily and too often uncontrollably choose to do instead.
The jargon-free neurobiological overview of how our brains regard short and longer spans of time was clear and informative. It turns out those Zen monks were right: we truly are wired to live in the moment. It's only since civilization has allowed us to plan for the longer term (weeks, months, even years ahead) that procrastination has truly come into its own, with a solid majority of people now acknowledging some degree of it in their lives.
This short-term mindset served us well in our hunter-gatherer past and still has a place today. But modern society continues to fragment our lives and abstract our goals to the point where the benefits of today's actions often can't be known or enjoyed until some vaguely imagined future. It's no surprise we easily shift our focus to tasks that give more immediate pleasure until that inevitable day our longer-term tasks suddenly become as urgent as running out of the cave to find tonight's dinner.
Most of us then proceed to hack through the job with little satisfaction and a gnawing sense of, 'I know this isn't the best I can do but I've squandered the time I had'.
The techniques Steel presents to deal with procrastination can be classified as internal and external: Distractions are very much a part of our external environment, be it the workplace or leisure space. But often we have more control over those spaces then we realize. Small adjustments such as turning off your email notification sound/icon can eliminate a major source of distraction and allow you to remain focused. The classic example of relocating your alarm clock out of arm's reach to prevent easy snoozing is almost a cliché but it's an effective illustration of modifying your environment to combat short-term distraction.
The single most effective technique the author describes is to convert long term, vaguely defined tasks into a series of shorter term but more precisely-defined goals. As you learn to achieve these small goals and celebrate your achievement you gradually build a `success spiral' that in turn increases your confidence and your expectations of succeeding. Subdividing large tasks this way is not a particularly original idea, but the book provides some fresh context and justification for it.
While many of the techniques in the book address common family/work issues, procrastination can affect any practical (or impractical) endeavor you find yourself involved in. The tools are the same whether you're writing business reports, a novel, studying a musical instrument, cleaning out the basement, or painting that half-bathroom - not to mention the classics: trying to lose weight, quit smoking, or get that physical you're overdue for.
At first I found the author's writing style a bit too breezy and his humor ineffective. If you agree that procrastination has had a limiting effect on your life the last thing you want to read is someone making light of it. The opening chapter (complete with quizzes) struck me as the kind of pop-psychology writing geared towards the very easily-distracted.
Fortunately Steel comes clean that he's deliberately keeping the tone extra lively for the benefit of those very readers (and he confides it's not an easy thing to do). It's soon evident however that he knows his stuff, has done his research, and has an interesting and effective argument to make. If it's true we're not to judge a book by its cover, a corollary here might be to go easy on the first chapter.
Speaking of chapters there's an interesting one on attitudes towards procrastination throughout history, describing some fantastically tragic characters and the price they paid. It will leave you feeling part of some pretty illustrious (or notorious) company.
I didn't find the chapter on the economic costs of procrastination as convincing. The idea that you can quantify workers' collective non-productive hours and project some equivalent economic gain sounds like wishful statistics. I've worked for companies whose executives prayed they could inspire such realignment but it never happened. So long as humans are part of the equation, I don't believe it ever will.
I think it's important to note that `The Procrastination Equation' is not offering some `five steps to completely reinvent your life' kind of advice. The author makes a critical point near the end that over-regulating your life by attempting to wring out every `non-productive' moment of whimsy, reflection, and just plain goofing off can be just as unhealthy as excessive procrastination.
The goal is to apply these tools to your specific issues - not to eliminate procrastination entirely - but to find that illusive balance between the scheduled and unscheduled, keeping on top of those essentials in our lives that truly deserve our focus but doing so efficiently to preserve some of that genuine guilt-free slacker time we're all entitled to.
Finally, I have to mention a personal peeve: the large amount of notes at the back of the book. I expect this in a thesis or university press edition, but a 307 page mass-market book with almost 100 pages of notes doesn't feel balanced and suggests questionable editing. Cynical readers will suspect a higher price is being charged for the padding. The fact that many of the notes provide interesting detail and helpful links makes it even more puzzling they weren't better integrated into the main text as sidebars, etc. Steel is an academic and admits part of his goal in writing the book is to promote cross-disciplinary adoption of his ideas. Nothing wrong with that but it's awkward to address different audiences and at times the book has the unmistakable whiff of an academic writing for other academics.