Feb 032010
Procrastination Meter

Image by Emilie Ogez via Flickr

As words go procrastination has to be one of the best. I like the way it rolls around on your tongue, taking, as you might expect, a little longer than necessary to get itself out. It’s a word that lingers, without really knowing why.

Putting things off is something most normal people do as a matter of course. Unless a task absolutely needs to be done now we’ll typically set it aside and do it later, focussing instead on what we feel is more immediately compelling. Psychologists, as is their wont, weave a complex tapestry of theoretical meaning around people’s very natural tendency to defer things until tomorrow. They call it procrastination, and describe it as a mechanism for coping with the anxiety of making a decision or starting any task.

But who in their right mind pays much attention to psychologists? They’re masters at taking perfectly natural human behaviour, sticking it in a box, adding a fancy label and attributing it to potentially serious underlying mental health issues. They’re so good at it because they spend an awful lot of time doing it… time they could easily allocate to more productive work, but choose not to. Sounds very like procrastination in action to me.

According to the psychologists then, procrastination stems from issues of anxiety, a low sense of self-worth, and a self-defeating mentality; too much of it, they maintain, can be a symptom of underlying mental health conditions like depression or ADHD. What a load of old cobblers!

While excessive procrastination may be undesirable in today’s hyper-efficient society, it is a perfectly understandable and rational form of human behaviour. Not so very long ago procrastination was less a psychological problem, more a built in survival mechanism.

Putting aside a task to focus on what is absolutely imperative to the moment… whether that’s finding your next meal, avoiding hungry predators or concentrating on staying with the group that provides you with shelter and security… was, until very recently, a pretty solid survival mechanism. Ah… mutter the psychologists… but what about the procrastinator’s tendency to inactivity when nothing is particularly pressing?

Well, if you think about it that’s not born of inherent slovenliness or a desire to avoid work either, but rather the evolutionary imperative to conserve energy until we genuinely need it… and not so very long ago in our history doing nothing effectively was literally a matter of life-or-death.

The characteristics of procrastination only becomes a problem when viewed against the backdrop of modern human society. Putting things off may stand in the way of individual success in today’s demanding, task orientated, deadline imposing world. Sneering high achievers — those organised automatons who always accomplish tasks in the most efficient order and get everything done ahead of time — would do well to remember that, in evolutionary terms at least, the success of humanity as a species is partially attributable to our tendency to procrastinate.

As a serial procrastinator I prefer to view that tendency as merely a different form of prioritisation. What’s important to me, at this precise moment in time, isn’t necessarily what other people think I should be concentrating on.

For more than nine years now, my priorities have been heavily skewed in favour of the girls, against which the imposed, work related priorities of the world at large come a rather distant second. Yes there are times when work tasks hit the front… when they become the driving imperative that absolutely has to get done… but it’s the exception, rather than the rule. There are much more important things in life.

Psychologists can label me and put me in a box all they want, but from my perspective procrastination isn’t a "condition", a "syndrome" or a symptom of anything other than a father’s very natural compulsion to put his children first.

This is my last column for Wow! I hope you’ve enjoyed the little missives I’ve shared with you over the last seven year’s (give or take a few months). It’s been a pleasure and a privilege talking to you… if you’d like to continue the conversation keep visiting this blog, leave the occasional comment, and/or follow @WriterCJ on Twitter.

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