Procrastination is the thief of time. Procrastination means putting off until tomorrow what you should be doing today.
For many people procrastination is a nemesis, a demonic force that haunts their lives.
But that does not tell us very much about what it is to procrastinate, and how to overcome this self-defeating habit.
I have been wanting to write about procrastination for some time now. I won't say I have been waiting for the right occasion, and I certainly will not admit to procrastinating about the topic, but I will confess that I was waiting for a hook, a concept, something that could help us understand the problem.
Yesterday, when I saw Shirley Wang's article about people who delay decision-making, I thought I had found a cogent and coherent account of the current psychological research on the topic. Link here.
Alas, I was disappointed. Psychologists have not really clarified the issue; they have muddied it.
But I am not going to use that as an excuse to avoid the question, even if I cannot really tie it all up in a neat theoretical package. Sometime it is worth the trouble just to try to redefine the question.
Defining procrastination is very difficult. How do you know when you are procrastinating and when you are taking the right time to deliberate over a serious issue?
Wang suggests that you are procrastinating when you spend hours trying to figure out whether to buy the argyle socks or the striped socks.
I would hesitate to call that procrastination; it sounds like you are in something of a trance, and perhaps in need of medical attention. Procrastination is a moral failing, not a psychiatric condition.
Similarly, if you are so impulsive that you jump to conclusions and make decisions without any consideration for your responsibility or the consequences of your actions, then surely you have not really conquered procrastination.
Perhaps you are pretending to be strong and decisive, but you will look like you're protesting too much and trying too hard. One might even say that you are afraid that other people will discover that you are tempted to procrastinate.
You do not overcome your tendency to be gun-shy by becoming trigger happy. Both qualities show that you are disconnected from reality.
Effective decision-making exists somewhere between indecision and impulsiveness.
Which leaves the question wide open.
Psychologists address the question by dividing the world into people who see everything in black and white terms and people who are generally ambivalent.
Those who see sharper contrasts, and who fail to consider opposing opinions, tend to make quicker decisions. According to the psychologists, their more ambivalent counterparts, people who see different sides to each issue, are more ambivalent, and thus, more likely to procrastinate.
As it happens, experiments have shown that ambivalent thinkers are generally more comfortable and less stressed than people who see the world in terms of sharp contrasts.
For my part I do not think that the word ambivalent helps very much here. The word itself suggests indecisiveness and even confusion. And it oversimplifies the problem, sometimes creating one where none exists.
Besides, what is the difference between ambivalent and deliberate? Ambivalent means you cannot make up your mind. Deliberate means that you are willing to take the time to make a reasoned and judicious decision.
Delaying a decision is not necessarily a sign of procrastination.
Some decisions are more difficult than others. Some involve more consequences for more people than others. In some cases you hesitate to decide because you are facing two bad options.
And then there is the question of experience. If you are experienced in a field you will find it much easier to make a quicker decision. Having seen similar situations before and having taken charge of them, you will feel more comfortable deciding what to do.
If you are inexperienced, you will need to take more time and give the matter more consideration. But if you are inexperienced and don't know it, you might well decide to imitate someone who has far more experience. That is a formula for impulsiveness.
And then, there's reality. Some people stand at the side of a pool for a long time wondering whether or not they should jump in. They may be wondering whether the water is too hot or too cold, whether they have allowed enough time to digest their lunch, and a multitude of other questions. They may be trying to overcome a phobia about water.
The solution is: to jump in.
And yet, someone else might be standing on the side of the pool and hesitating to jump in because the pool is empty.
Sometimes people hesitate to make the obvious choice because they intuit that there is something wrong, and refuse to proceed until they know what it is.
Finally, some people procrastinate because they are being pressured to make up their minds. If they succumb to pressure they will feel that their decision is not really theirs. That, in itself, might be a good reason to procrastinate.
Other people have good reasons for delaying a decision. Perhaps they want to gather more evidence or consult more widely.
Other people delay a decision for bad reasons. They do not want to take responsibility for the consequences of their actions, or better, they prefer to have the decision made by someone else.
Surely, there is a point at which deliberation becomes procrastination, where indecisiveness becomes a habit with a life of its own.
How do you know whether or not you have reached that point?
First, estimate the cost. How much is it costing you to procrastinate? Deliberation becomes delay when you start losing opportunities, when a situation starts careening out of your control, when everyone seems to be suspended, waiting for you to make up your mind.
At that point, you are under an ethical obligation to take a stand, to make a decision.
Second, you are procrastinating when you and your delay become something of a drama. When the world starts revolving around the will-he or won't-he aspect of your decision.
When you have succeeded in drawing attention to your own weak character and away from the problem at hand, then you are procrastinating.
The solution might be simply to flip a coin, as one psychologist suggested. The psychologist tries to see how he reacts to the coin's decision, and, if that works for you, well and good.
Finally, the real solution is to throw caution to the winds. You can and should know how to correct a bad decision. It is much more difficult to correct not having the courage to make any decision at all.