Why Do Now What You Could Do … Never?

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I woke up this morning less than enthusiastic about the to-do list I’d drawn up for myself the day before. Though I couldn’t have said specifically what I disliked about it – it was all fairly standard work, and work that I didn’t mind, at that – I knew that there were few things in the Universe I wanted less than to sit down at my desk and get started.

So I went for a run. Then I took a shower, and cooked myself a leisurely breakfast. After that I swept out the house, did the dishes, and changed the sheets on my bed (normally, I should mention, a task that falls somewhere below sword-swallowing on my list of interests). When I’d done literally everything I could think of on the home front, I finally opened my computer, put fingers to keyboard, and found myself overwhelmed by a profound sense of distress. Since I work from home, this is particularly unfortunate: I’m the only one around to make me do anything. At a complete loss, I Googled “procrastination.”

It may be one of the ironies of modern science that reading about procrastination is absolutely one of the most effective ways I’ve encountered to engage in it. There is, as it turns out, a whole lot of research on the subject. James Surowiecki explains in his article “Later” that procrastination is, unfortunately, a very natural human process, and is moreover a product of our shifting relationships with time. Allow me to paraphrase:

Because humans just aren’t that good at thinking ahead, various parts of our internal selves are often at war with each other. One part will claim that it’s time to knuckle down and get the hard work done, while another will make a strong (and often winning) case for reading a fluffy book and doing the hard stuff tomorrow, when we’ll be fresher. Fun often wins, and loses to Work only when Work convinces Fun that Fun, in the long run, can only continue if Work gets its way. (Befuddled yet?)

Of course, sometimes when we procrastinate, it’s not even particularly enjoyable. As Surowiecki explains, “we often procrastinate not by doing fun tasks but by doing jobs whose only allure is that they aren’t what we should be doing. My apartment, for instance, has rarely looked tidier than it does at the moment.” On the one hand, considering the current state of my house, it’s sad how pointed this statement seems. On the other, I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who convinces herself that housework is an appropriate substitute for work-work.

Unfortunately, my tendencies aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. It’s just in our brains. The limbic system is a very old part of our anatomy, and essentially sits around all day shouting things like “Stop this boring crap! Watch Game of Thrones! Never do things you hate!” Our prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, is a stodgy workhorse that replies with constant reprimands on the order of “Sit down! Shut up! Make your mother proud!” and so on. It’s pretty much an unbridgeable divide.

What to do about it? Well, there are several possibilities. Not letting yourself get away with it is one of them; science suggests that people who exercise will power can actually get better at doing so. Another is applying external pressure, like promising someone else the work by a certain time. And finally, removing temptation is always a good option.

It’s unlikely that I can cure my “problem” through any of these means. No matter how successful I get, I will probably always find political blooper reels and fantasy novels more appealing than work. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try. Starting tomorrow, I’ll be going to a coffee shop to work instead of staying home. I’ll be offering up deadlines ahead of time instead of waiting for them to be assigned (or not). And I’ll be beating my willpower bloody to see if that makes any difference.

It may not, but a girl and her prefrontal cortex can dream, can’t they?

Photo credit: FLICKR/john.schultz

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[...] energy or motivation to write anything original for this post. Therefore I'm stealing it from Science in Society, another blog I write for. I can't tell if this is ironic or totally [...]

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