Do you procrastinate? If you’re an actual human being – not a replicant, nor an android, nor an AI – and you’re being honest, then you should probably be nodding your head. But what’s odd about a ubiquitous behavior like procrastination is that it’s almost unanimously regarded as being detrimental to our success, our happiness, and our progress as human beings, and yet we still put things off until later. Counterintuitive yet persistent behaviors fascinate me to no end, because they suggest (at least to me) an evolutionary incongruence at hand. They suggest that in another context, another environment, the counterintuitive was anything but.
Is procrastination just such a behavior? Let’s explore:
I have noticed that procrastination is a huge problem for many of my friends and colleagues. I know that I too will make myself miserable by putting a project off until the very last minute, yet even though I recognize the misery and it’s very avoidable cause, I continue to do it anyway.
Do you think there is a primal solution to this issue? Why do you think we feel the need to put off our to do lists? I cannot imagine that this attitude would have served our ancestors well. Why is it such a struggle for so many people?
I have read up on this topic a bit. There are different theories, but two of the most prevalent are the theory that procrastination is due to perfectionism and the theory that procrastination is caused by impulsivity. I would love to get your perspective on this issue and how rampant procrastination might be caused by a misalignment of our modern world with our primal selves.
As you mention, there are competing ideas about the cause of procrastination.
The “procrastination as perfectionism” idea says that procrastinators are actually perfectionists who are paralyzed with fear at failing to do things absolutely perfectly. They continue to put things off to avoid the chance of doing something less than perfectly. On its face, this seems limited. Sure, you could argue that the English student with an essay to write procrastinates because she can’t come up with a good, defensible thesis, but what about the guy who waits til the last minute to do his taxes or pay the water bill? How does perfectionism enter into those situations?
A 2007 meta-analysis concluded that perfectionism was likely not at the heart of procrastination (PDF). In fact, perfectionists are actually slightly less likely to be procrastinators. It’s just that perfectionists who are procrastinators were more likely to seek professional help (because, being perfectionists, they wanted to beat procrastination), and this created a self-selection phenomenon in which clinicians would report a preponderance of procrastinating perfectionists and thus skew their perception. They’re not seeing all the procrastinators who aren’t perfectionists, because, well, “I’ll just make the appointment another day.”
Piers Steel (author of that meta-analysis and bearer of a romance novel protagonist name) thinks that we procrastinate partly because the task at hand simply isn’t pleasant to do and partly because we’re not confident in our abilities to perform it – common sense factors that, I think, we can all agree on. If something is boring and hard to do, we’re less likely to do it right away and more likely to wait until the last minute. Makes sense, right? But at the “nickel-iron” core of procrastination, says Steel, lies impulsivity. We don’t like waiting for rewards, and, according to Steel’s research, we’re even inclined to take the lesser reward (say, $1000) instead of the greater reward (say, $2000) if the former is available immediately and the latter is available only a year from now.
As far as procrastination being yet another manifestation of the modern world’s misalignment with our Primal selves? I think there’s something to it. Consider the possibility that daily life in the millenia past was more “check to check” (without the checks, of course). Most tasks we had to complete literally could not wait – gathering the day’s water (or else have none), building or finding shelter (or else be exposed to the elements) . These were tasks that, upon completion, provided immediate, tangible rewards. I think we’re built for these short-range tasks with immediate rewards, but we live in a society of lists and goals and projections and commitments and schedules which don’t always offer noticeable rewards upon completion.
I’m of the mind that many of the things we’re “supposed to do” are alien concepts to our ancient brains. What is paying bills, really? You scribble some stuff on a slip of paper (or go online and clack on some keys) that represents a portion of your hard earned money and send it off to some faceless entity? We understand why we need to pay the water bill, but do we really get it? Nothing happens when we pay it. Nothing really changes. If we hadn’t done it that day, the water would still flow, probably for at least a month. Or how about waking up early and trudging into the office to shuffle some papers for eight hours? Many of us are so disconnected from the bigger picture at our jobs, and work for such large companies, that the immediate effect of the work we do is tough to judge. And thus, to our Primal mind’s eye, the work is meaningless and unfulfilling. Perhaps this accounts for some of the burnout seen in the corporate world.
What are the hardest tasks to put off? The ones that choose you, that pop up without much warning, the ones to which you must react and respond immediately. The easiest? The far-off decisions, the “safely at a distance” ones that sound good and necessary and completely rational from afar, until the day actually approaches and you realize you’re going to have to do the thing – and then you don’t do it, or agonize for hours and days before doing it. On one extreme, it’s a falling tree branch headed straight for your head – you don’t procrastinate about moving your head out of the branch’s path. On the other extreme, it’s deciding to go hunting when you’ve just nabbed a 600-pound elk cow the day before. The muscle meat is sliced and hung to dry over the smoke pits, the bones and trimmings are being processed into grease, and you’re eating last night’s organ-stuffed intestines for breakfast. Your people have enough meat for at least a week or two, but another kill would keep you stocked for perhaps a month. You could head out and spend the day trying to nab another animal and be set for awhile if you succeed, or you could chill out by the fire, sip some fermented honey, and enjoy what you have.
What can you do, though, when you live in a world of deadlines and commitments, schedules and calendars?
Victor Hugo would strip off his clothes, give them to his butler, and have him hide them until he finished writing. That way, he’d be stuck indoors with no other option but to write. A Primal solution might be to take the tasks that you find yourself putting off and break them up into smaller, manageable chunks with deadlines, more akin to what our ancestors would have dealt with. I briefly detailed the Seinfeld method of productivity in this post, which involves making a calendar for each task with goals and deadlines on each day; take a look and see what you think. Think of it as tricking your brain into thinking a large, sprawling task is several small ones with immediate rewards.
Another option is to set things up so that you are penalized for not doing a task. Try one of the productivity tools mentioned above, or just give a friend a hundred bucks and tell him not to give it back unless you write the paper. Grok often completed tasks because his life and livelihood literally depended on their completion; you’re probably gonna stick around regardless of your procrastination, so give your mind something tangible (not) to look forward to. Create a meaningful penalty for yourself so that your Primal brain notices and “fears” it enough to get you to do it.
In related news, the Primal Blueprint 21-Day Challenge is coming next week, so if you’re a chronic procrastinator in regards to health, fitness, or you’re just lagging on going Primal in general, stay tuned for the antidote: tangible rewards! Thanks for reading, guys, and be sure to leave a comment about your experience with procrastination.