A few days ago I read an Associated Press article about the dangers of procrastination—dangers with which I, a self-employed writer, am well-acquainted. In order to pace myself and meet an impending deadline, I give myself a daily assignment . . . and then I fritter the morning away with email and Spider Solitaire. When it becomes apparent that I’ll be up late unless I get to work, I open my word processing file and begin to write.
University of Calgary professor Piers Steel, a Canadian industrial psychologist, recently completed a study on procrastination and its effects. The ten-year-study—which, interestingly enough, was supposed to be completed in five years–discovered that procrastination makes people poorer, fatter, and unhappier.
Professor Steel’s thirty-page report, published by the American Psychological Association, found that only 5 percent of the American public thought of themselves as procrastinators in 1978 while today the figure is closer to 26 percent. Why the surge in dedicated delayers? For one thing, we have more distractions than we did in ‘78: instead of working, Americans can watch TiVo, surf the Internet, talk on our cell phones, play video games, listen to our iPods, and email friends with our Blackberries.
Steel estimates that the U.S. gross national product might rise by fifty billion dollars if our computers lost the “You’ve got mail” .wav file and the envelope icon that appears at the bottom of our screens when new email arrives. I didn’t intend to test Mr. Steel’s theory, but during a major computer malfunction last week, I lost my .wav file and the new mail icon. The result? I’m neither thinner, richer, nor happier. In fact, I’m probably wasting more time than usual because I keep checking my inbox.
How does procrastination make us poorer? According to Professor Steel, a delay in filing taxes on average costs an individual $400 a year. Since that seems like an unusually high figure for interest on a delayed refund, I can only assume he’s referring to those who file past the deadline and have to pay penalties along with their taxes.
I can easily understand why procrastination results in weight gain. I’ve lost count of the oversized “last suppers” I’ve enjoyed before the diet which always begins tomorrow. Diets were designed for New Year’s Days and Mondays. Ditto for exercise plans.
Does procrastination make us unhappier? Only if we’re forced to pay $400 in back taxes and penalties, I suspect. Or late fees on the loan payment or credit card. But for every man who suffers regret because he waited too long to snag an opportunity, I’m sure there is another who is glad he took time to look—and play a game of computer Solitaire–before he leapt.
A wise person knows better than to procrastinate in certain situations—if you are sick, you should go to the doctor. If you spot a leak, call a plumber. If you notice raging flames, dial 911. Delay will only compound obvious problems.
Yet procrastination has undeniable benefits. Creativity often needs time to flex its muscles, so if you hit a wall while working on a perplexing problem, stop. Take a walk, play a game of Minesweeper, file a fingernail. The more mindless the alternate activity, the more brain cells available to your subconscious.
Procrastination can be an ally when dealing with emotional situations. Problems that looked insurmountable at six p.m. often resume manageable proportions after a good night’s sleep. Raging tempers can cool when left unattended. Even grief eases when life settles back into its daily rhythm, which is probably why people who have lost a spouse are encouraged to wait a year before making drastic life changes.
Even the intellect can be aided by procrastination. The gems of knowledge are often unappreciated until we are able to put them in the proper setting. I couldn’t enjoy the study of history as a high school student; now I am fascinated by people of the past. Why do college professors routinely praise continuing education students? Because adult students drink deeply at the fountain of knowledge while their younger counterparts gargle.
In his Confessions, St. Augustine admitted that even his prayers were laced with procrastination: “Da mihi castitatem et continetiam, sed noli modo,” he prayed, or, in words that would probably make Professor Steel shudder, “give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”