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Procrastintion! Who me?

22 January 2014, 07:35

SPOILER ALERT: This is meant to be light-hearted!

They say the best thing about procrastination is that one always has plans for tomorrow…. And I think it was Mark Twain who asked “why put off until tomorrow, what can be put off until the day after tomorrow?”

But jokes aside folks, procrastination slowly sucks the life out of us.  Being a chronic procrastinator myself, I decided the only way I was going to actually get round to doing stuff was if I locked myself in a room, and started looking at what some of the world’s leading behavioural scientists were saying about our inability to get started, get finished and move on to the next task!  I mean, even the prize winning novelist Jonathan Franzen, reportedly super-glued a network cable into his lap top – and then cut the cable, so prone was he to launching his internet browser. 

Research1 shows that procrastinators spend less time preparing for projects likely to succeed and more time on projects that are likely to fail (!); underestimate the amount of time required to complete a task; and are prone to impulsive behaviour2 - rooted in an urge for immediate gratification.   Wow!

But procrastination doesn’t simply manifest in work or academic tasks and missed deadlines.  Think of the long list of things to do around the house; or your failure to book accommodation for yet another holiday?  What about keeping your tax matters and finances up to date?  These are all relatively minor inconveniences actually.  Think about how silly putting off a health check or a trip to the dermatologist can be?  You’ll quit smoking tomorrow?  Suddenly procrastination takes on potentially disastrous side effects.  Failing exams, not spending time on your business or lamenting the unwritten novel in your head, all slowly grinds down your self-esteem.  I mean how crazy are we, when in the cold light of The Common, we step back and think about how long we spend in this completely unproductive zone?  This behaviour can’t be good for our self-concept?  

The roots of procrastination are complex – something we’ll explore in future editions of this series – but what we know is that procrastination is a biopsychosocial phenomenon.  That’s interplay of genetics, psychology and environmental factors; all wickedly combining and conspiring to impact our cognitive orientation in relation to the present and the future.  

The first step in understanding our personal procrastination, is trying to understand our own impulsivity, and how whether we’re more present- or future-oriented.   Why does a bathroom break end up taking 20 minutes?  Or a BBM or WhatsApp message result an hour’s distraction? And what of Facebook, email or the chit-chat at the water cooler?  

So if self-awareness might help us get started, maybe a few anecdotes might help…

  1. The past is the past.  Don’t believe in fate.  The future is yours to control.  Sure we have to work at it, but things will turn out for the better if you put the work in – yes I know sounds kinda fatalistic, but you know what I mean…..   Note I’m not speaking of planning either– there are no better planners in the world than procrastinators; trust me, no one is going to work harder than me tomorrow!  I guarantee it – when tomorrow comes!  So rather start with doing something. Success begets success – Piers Steel calls it a success spiral.2  Remember in the end there are only two kinds of people in the world: Talkers & Doers! You choose..
  1. Secondly, if you’re prone to impulsive behaviour, then I urge you to do the math.  The world’s average life expectancy is 67.2 years3.  Given that you have a computer, and you’re a reader, that means you’ll probably be lucky enough to stretch that to around 80, hopefully longer but let’s work with 80 as an example.  Let’s assume we sleep / veg for 8 hours a day – then take a look at the self-explanatory table below…. 



Years left

Days Left

Hours Left



20 089

321 420



18 263

292 200



16 436

262 980



14 610

233 760



12 784

204 540



10 958

175 320



7 305

116 880



5 479

87 660

Now before you get all depressed, we’re all in the same boat.  We can either choose to make the most of what we have, or spiral into depression.  Just remember this table next time you’re watching a re-run of Keeping Up with Kardashians.   I mean if medical science is able to extent my life by another 50-years, hell I’d rather they were another 50 great years!

Beating procrastination has to start today.  Zig Ziglar once said, “You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great”.   And speaking from my own chronic procrastinating experience (it took me ages to write this)… I am only too aware of how silly a state of inaction can be (PS: I’m somewhere in the middle of that table, so I had better listen to Zig myself!)  

Recognise your triggers, those urges and impulses that distract and delay – and for goodness sake, turn off the TV, close your web browser & put that smart phone down for a while!  Reach out to the people you love today, make that call you’ve meaning to make!  Go out and market your business; or sit down at your desk and start writing your story!  Care less, risk more… but don’t spend another minute not doing something worthwhile.



References and extra reading

  1. Ferrari, J. R. & Diaz-Morales, J. F. (2007). Procrastination: Different time orientations reflect different motives. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 707-714.
  2. Steel, P. (2010). The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. New York: HarperCollins
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