Saturday, 1 September 2012

Procrastination: a euphemism for laziness?

Two articles have recently appeared in the English-language online media on the subject of procrastination. The one in the Economist's Schumpeter column is telling the world of business to slow down, take it easy; not to rush into ill-judged decisions. "Become obsessed with deadlines, and you're left with the intellectual equivalent of fast food". I wrote about this a few weeks ago. A riposte has appeared in the BBC's online News Magazine, which slams procrastination as a curse. "Chronic procrastinators, complicate their lives, and probably shorten them, with their incessant delaying and task avoidance... [They] are less wealthy, less healthy and less happy than those who don't delay."

So who's right? Of course, both extremes (unthinkingly rushing into things or delaying they indefinitely) are recipes for disaster. Finding the happy medium between the two requires getting the balance right, using a blend of thought and instinct. As the Economist article says, there are things that cannot be put off at all, such as paying credit card bills.

The BBC's article was followed up by a huge treasure-trove of personal anecdotes relating to extreme procrastination. Things put off for decades (my favourite was about the pregnant woman who asked her husband to put up some shelves. The shelves were eventually put up - by the couple's 16 year-old son).

Learning that has been set up has forced me to dig deeper into the nature of task-avoidance. Could a lazy person could have done something like this? Resolving to do something, but doing it much later than initially planned, is less bad than not resolving to do something in the first place. "Less... bad"? Yes, indeed. I'm placing a moral dimension on this. As well as putting off starting something, people often have problems with finishing something they've started. (I must say this is more of a problem for me than procrastination in its basic form.) So - is procrastination synonymous with laziness, or just one aspect of it?

Key to the question is the issue of human will. We learn from Prof. Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University Chicago, author of Still Procrastinating? The No Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, that 20% of the population of the world are chronic procrastinators. Whether it's 15% or 25% is not the issue, nor how you define 'chronic'. The point is that many people have a problem in this department. And yes, it holds them back in life, it generates self-loathing or else resentment and envy towards those better motivated and better organised than them.

After Poland's economic and social transformation, some people threw themselves with a frenzy into the market place, set up small businesses, worked all the hours of the day - and slowly, systematically, found they could afford a better, more comfortable life than their less motivated and less hard-working neighbours. Who soon came to resent their new-found wealth.

I still return to my old question - is human will and motivation something we are born with, or taught? If the will is strong enough, it can overcome obstacles - poor social skills, low levels of assertiveness or even intelligence. Strong will, self-discipline, good organisation - nature or nurture?

This time three years ago:
Remembering the outbreak of WWII

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