I started writing this article a week ago.
It was Saturday. I was home before 6:00 p.m. I switched on my notebook. Wait! I thought. I needed to set the mood. So I adjusted the room temperature. Ah! I sprayed the den with my favorite room scent. I browsed through my music files and created a playlist. Then I took a shower. Estimating that the writing will take about two hours, I prepared a fresh batch of coffee. Hmm... this is just right. I went back to my notebook. I opened the word document. The white space was staring at me. So I checked what’s new on Netflix. I spent the next four hours watching a TV series. The article can wait.
Procrastination is a human condition. I know that this article needs to be written, but I delayed writing it. I feel a strong sense of anxiety and guilt, yet there seems to be no way for me to really start doing it. Piers Steel, author of The Procrastination Equation, claimed that 95 percent of people admit to putting off work at a later time. It is “a purely visceral, emotional reaction to something we don’t want to do.”
Evolution has programmed our brains to procrastinate. In primitive societies, when man hunts and catches his prey, he immediately enjoys the reward of his effort. There exists no distance or delay between the effort and the reward. In modern society, however, man often does not enjoy the rewards of his effort immediately. Thus, he delays effort on tasks that do not give immediate rewards.
Binging on the latest TV series gave me immediate pleasure. The rewards for writing this article are abstract and only come in increments. This is the same reason why spending the money now is more attractive than saving for the future. Now is a sure thing. The future is not certain.
Moreover, a lot of tasks set by modern society are not natural to man. Research papers, business proposals, yearend reports, etc. These are forms that were forced upon us by society. We are assumed to accept without question. These involve tasks that we will not choose to do if they are not required. Thus, the natural tendency to delay.
In his essay “How to Procrastinate and Still Get Things Done,” emeritus philosophy professor John Perry of Stanford University narrated that instead of checking papers and preparing for lectures, he would regularly leave the tasks and “go over to the lounge and play Ping-Pong with residents or talk things over with them in the rooms.” As a result, he got a reputation for being one of the “rare profs on campus who spent time with undergraduates and got to know them.”
According to Perry, while procrastinators put off things they have to do, they seldom do absolutely nothing. Fact is, they do marginally useful things. This is their way of delaying the tasks that are “more important.”
In his Theory of Structured Procrastination, he said the trick is to trick oneself. He suggests establishing “a hierarchy of tasks, in order of importance from the most urgent to the least important.” While the most important task will be avoided, the worthwhile tasks lower on the list will be performed. In the end, a lot of things get done.
For the entire time that I was supposed to have written this article, I scoured the net for materials to be used for my proposal. I also finished reading two Sherlock Holmes pastiches that I bought a long time ago. And I had translated manuscripts for an offshore publisher.
While I delayed writing this article, I read random articles and papers that piqued my interest. Although I do not know what I’m going to write not until 2-3 days before deadline, the ideas from the readings have long been swirling and percolating inside my head. And when time runs out, like today, I will be able to churn out an article at the fastest time possible.
Left to his own devices, one will most probably procrastinate. Interestingly, with group pressure, this will disappear or a large part of it will. Research shows that “it matters to us whether we’re respected by others—even by strangers.” We are compelled not to delay the tasks because “we don’t want to look foolish or lazy to other people.”
In my case, a commitment made to my editor, an announcement made to my students, and even an off the cuff remark to a client or to a reader, all bind me to write this article now.
Now that this article is done, the next task is to go write my proposal. But before that, let me reward myself with a book. And when I get home...
Ah! That proposal can wait.
Real Carpio So lectures at the Ramon V. del Rosario College of Business of De La Salle University. He is an entrepreneur and a management consultant. Comments are welcomed at [email protected] Archives can be accessed at realwalksonwater.wordpress.com. The views expressed above are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official position of DLSU, its faculty, and its administrators.