Productivity and GTD

Understanding Procrastination

AUTHOR: Francisco Sáez
"You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again." ~ Benjamin Franklin

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Understanding procrastination

Procrastinate is defined by the Oxford dictionary as “delay or postpone action” (from Latin pro-, forward, and crastinus, belonging to tomorrow). This definition seems too simple to me so I wanted to dig a little in the true essence of the term.

The procrastination phenomenon began to be studied by philosophers, psychologists and economists after George Akerlof wrote in 1991 an essay entitled “Procrastination and Obedience”. From his own experience—he had been delaying for a few months, each day without any reason, a task he had to do—Akerlof realized that this phenomenon, beyond being a bad habit, exceeded the limits of rationality 1.

According to scholars, procrastination occurs not when you decide to postpone something to the next day (waiting is not procrastinating), but when you do it knowing it will be harmful and goes against yourself. That’s where the irrationality is. Procrastinating has a negative impact on our morale and generates frustration, due to the accumulation of pending tasks. It increases our levels of dissatisfaction and stress and, ultimately, does not make us happier.

It’s funny how neither people’s intelligence nor their education or knowledge are determining factors to procrastinate less. From an economic point of view, you feel like there’s much greater benefit in doing today’s tasks, which leads you to postpone the tasks of the future once and again, until it’s too late. In other words, it seems like the main reason for procrastination is the social tendency to pay more attention to what is in force.

Normally, you go through three different stages when you procrastinate an important task: first you feel discomfort because deep down you know that you should be doing that thing you’re pushing for later, then you take care of other less important but easier or more appealing tasks to make up for that feeling of discomfort, and last, you look for a reason to justify yourself for what you have chosen to do.

Each incorrect decision—each time we decide to postpone—supposes a small loss (in general terms, not just economical) but the accumulation of these losses over time can make a great difference in the end. And the consequences can be very important. Akerlof shows several significant examples: people who live poorly when they are old because they postponed saving money for later, people with problems or health issues because of substance abuse that they didn’t know how to quit, and companies that failed because projects didn’t start neither finish when it was supposed to.

This is an open and somewhat controversial debate. There are all kinds of opinions and there are even those who don’t think procrastination is a bad thing. In my opinion, procrastination is one of the biggest enemies of personal productivity, and someone who procrastinates important things regularly, even if it’s in favor of other things, loses the opportunity to achieve great things.

1 The New Yorker: Later. What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?

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