is a psychologist,
and author (eliza
“TELL ME IF anything was ever done.” Many years ago, an artist scribbled
those words in his journal over and over. He kept putting off paintings that
needed to be done—it took him more than a decade to finish two of them. He
felt like a failure. His name was Leonardo da Vinci.
Procrastination feels terrible. As blogger Tim Urban describes it, if you
choose what’s easy and fun today, there’s a good chance that tomorrow you’ll
be stuck in a dark playground where the air is poisoned by anxiety, guilt and
despair. And that’s exactly why you shouldn’t feel bad about it.
Procrastination is a normal part of the creative process. It happens when
you haven’t figured out the right solution to a problem—or the right problem to
solve. Apple co-founder Steve Jobs procrastinated regularly. Wendy Kopp was
the last senior in her major to declare a topic for her thesis; it was a proposal
for Teach for America, which she went on to launch. Ernest Hemingway regularly left sentences unfinished; J.R.R. Tolkien painstakingly answered reader
questions by mail instead of working on a book. Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t
start writing his “I have a dream” speech until the night before—and he was still
jotting notes and crossing out lines right before he walked onstage. “You call it
procrastination,” screenwriter Aaron Sorkin says. “I call it thinking.”
Sure, procrastinating can be the enemy of progress. But beating yourself up
about it only makes it worse. If you’re stressed that you’re stressed, you suffer
more. Researcher Jihae Shin and I ran some experiments showing that when we
remind people that procrastination is common, they end up generating more
ideas—and experts rate those ideas as more creative. So next time you find
yourself procrastinating, remember it might be a sign that you’re not there yet.
When da Vinci was working on the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, he got
distracted by his curiosity about optics. But the time he spent dabbling in optics
changed the way he modeled light. If procrastination didn’t ruin the renaissance
man’s masterpieces, it might not ruin your work either. C
YES FROM EXPERTS IN THE FIELD
NO FROM EXPERTS IN THE FIELD
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
Is procrastinating a
RESEARCH SHOWS procrastination is associated with increased long-term
physical stress, weaker performance, greater likelihood of illness and insom-
nia, less happiness and diminished wealth. An increase in psychological dis-
tress—most notably guilt, shame, anxiety and worry—is also associated with
procrastination. Procrastination refers to delaying the commencement or
completion of a task and is often motivated by fear: fear of failure (“What if I
mess it up or can’t do it?”), fear of success (“I will get more work if I complete
this”) or fear of the task (“It will be difficult or boring to do”). Being motivated
by fear instead of passion can be quite distressing. Procrastination differs from
intentional delay (consciously deciding not to do something now) and ponder-
ing (thinking about the task without acting), which do not result in distress.
Chronic procrastination is associated with lower self-esteem, as well as
higher concern with how one is viewed by others. People are more likely to
procrastinate when the task is seen as evaluating their abilities as opposed to
something that is fun and meaningless. With a tendency to personalize failure,
procrastinators would often rather be seen as lacking effort, not capability.
Chronic procrastination is related to difficulty with emotional regulation:
choosing to focus on immediate distress by distracting yourself with a less noxious activity instead of the long-term consequences, including the heaviness
of having the task hanging over you. This can be a maladaptive coping mechanism. Procrastination can also adversely affect your health, perhaps causing you to put off seeing a doctor when you notice something wrong or avoid a
healthy behavior, such as a diet or exercise program.
Procrastination is associated with an all-or-nothing mindset: “It will be
terrible to do, so I won’t even start” or a perfectionistic “It is not perfect, so I
cannot finish it.” Both perspectives can impede work and life functioning, as
well as interactions with family, friends and co-workers. In fact, relationship
strain is common among those who chronically procrastinate. C
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