By Paul

Procrastination! Are you guilty of putting things off to the last minute, of rushing around madly as the deadline creeps nearer and nearer, or just figuring that somehow things will magically take care of themselves? If so, you may not appreciate my use of the word “guilty,” as mentioned above. Perhaps your sense of things is that this might actually be a better way of being in the world, at least compared with all those folks who are harassed and driven by deadlines, stressed out and straining to get things done by an arbitrary time certain for a boss, or a teacher, or some other taskmaster, or just by their own inner sense of a need for completion. And there are researchers who may even agree with you. At least from the point of view of genetics.

A new study out of the University of Colorado has suggested that what we think of today as procrastination may at one point have served a useful purpose in our evolutionary history. Researchers found that, once upon a time, immediate, tangible goals like finding food or fending off enemies were uppermost in the minds of many of our most successful ancestors. In fact, those who took care of business in this way may have had a tendency to live longer than their fellow tribe members, those with loftier things to think about, or who planned things out and deferred gratification for what, maybe erroneously, they thought to be a more propitious moment.

A strong correlation was noted, too, between procrastination and impulsive behavior, and vice versa, both due to genetic inheritance. In other words, although it may seem ironic at first, there is a marked tendency in those who procrastinate to act impulsively, and for those who act impulsively to procrastinate.  I say it may seem ironic because impulsive activity is not usually equated with putting things off. However, it is compatible with a resistance to stopping, thinking, and planning things out. Even so, this does not mean that, if someone has a genetic propensity toward either of these traits, the individual cannot or should not change his or her behavior. Genes are not total determinants of behavior, and environment can and does greatly influence how genes get “turned on,” or not. So, if you’re that terrible impulsive buyer, or a great procrastinator, and you wish you weren’t, there’s still hope.

But as I was reading the study, I began to wonder why other hunting traits in our genetic ancestors mightn’t have been of equal, or even of greater value. For example, why would it be better from an evolutionary (i.e. a survival) point of view for a hunter to drop everything “on impulse” and go hunting? Why not first think instead, “OK, there’s a big herd of buffalo, or wildebeest, or whatever out there, so if we plan things out and organize a hunting party, and you scare them in this direction, and I’m there waiting to pounce,” why wouldn’t this method deliver a much bigger dinner for the group than the one lone hunter, who went out on his own?   From this point of view, non-procrastination, that is, the tendency to plan things out carefully and get things done by a certain deadline (i.e., while the herd is still in striking distance, for example), might well be even more valuable. By the way, the same argument could be made about enemies, in terms of it being a better strategy to counter them in highly planned-out and coordinated ways, rather than that lone warrior going off to die in glory.

Nowadays, of course, most of us don’t get our dinner by hunting it, nor do we generally have to fend off enemies on our own. Still, many of us continue to be faced with feelings of hesitancy and resistance when it comes to getting a task done within a certain timeframe. So, it’s a fair question to ask whether or not procrastination is a useful trait anymore in the highly complex and sophisticated societies we all live in today.

There are all sorts of reasons given about why people procrastinate. One of the most common seems to be fear of failure. That may sound odd at first until we look deeper and see that people put things off because they think the task looks to be beyond their capacities, and if they were to dive right in and take the thing on, in the end it might not be done right anyway. So why risk it? If they don’t do it at all, or at least if they don’t do it now, then at least the procrastinator doesn’t have to deal with the shame or quilt of maybe having failed.

I’ll even step up and admit to my own procrastination, just so no one thinks I’m trying to write from some supposed moral high ground. I’ve put off making an eye appointment for almost a year now, and it’s just because of fear. I don’t want the ophthalmologist to tell me that I need a cataract operation, and I’m afraid he might tell me that I do. Finally, just the other day, I faced that fear, and I’ve now made the appointment. We’ll see soon enough if, in this case, my fears were “justified.”

Psychologists tell us that the antidotes to procrastination are self-discipline, persistence, and personal responsibility. Frankly, this sounds a little simplistic to me, something like saying you won’t be a procrastinator, if you learn how not to procrastinate. Of course, but how to develop these traits? How do you get to be a self-disciplined, persistent individual with a sense of personal responsibility? And furthermore, does that always align itself with things like creativity, originality, imagination, and fun-filled inventiveness?

Not that I’m suggesting, either, that the act of creation doesn’t require its own kind of discipline. No one learns how to draw, or paint, or write, or dance, or act, or play a musical instrument just by being spontaneous about it. There’s always a long period of training and apprenticeship involved, a time when you have to learn the basics of the craft and get a sense of the history of who’s done what before you. After that, maybe you can take off from there and change things in your own way, but you’ve got to take off from some place.

This all brings to mind for me the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine. La Fontaine was one of the most famous writers of 17th century France, and his Fables, essentially poems that often use animal characters to deliver moral messages, have been memorized by French school children ever since. One of my favorites, which I memorized myself in high school, is called “La Cigale et La Fourmie,” the Grasshopper (literally, a cicada, but grasshopper is the more common translation) and the Ant. Mr. Grasshopper sings and plays around all day, while Mr. Ant works hard to carefully fill his larder. When winter’s breezes come, Mr. G. is hungry and asks his neighbor, Mr. A., for a handout. I give you my word, I’ll pay you back, he says, next August, both interest and principal! (“Je vous paierai , lui dit-elle/Avant l’août, foi d’animal/Intérêt et principal!”) But Mr. A. isn’t really the lending type (think “neither a borrower, nor a lender be,” as Polonius tells his son, Laertes, in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”). What, he wants to know, were you doing all last summer anyway? Oh, I was singing, Mr. G. says, whenever anybody came round. Well fine, replies Mr. A., then now maybe you’d better dance! (“Vous chantiez? J’en suis fort aise/Eh bien! Dansez maintenant”).

Actually, the ending here is a little less moralistic, and a little more ambiguous, than you might expect from a fable. La Fontaine’s ant doesn’t exactly say “no” to his hungry, song-filled neighbor. He tells him to go dance instead. And that’s not quite the same thing. Maybe the world isn’t so easily divided between procrastinators and “doers.” Maybe most of us are part ant and part grasshopper. We play one role or the other at one time or another in our lives.   So, let’s not be too condemnatory of those who put things off.

Sometimes, it would seem that it’s best just to drop everything, jump up, and go hunting, and sometimes it’s better to wait and carefully hatch out a whole strategy. The real trick is to know the difference, to plan and strategize when that’s right, and to dance and dream when that’s called for. In the end, I’ve found that there’s nothing wrong with doing a little of both.

I, for example, have been meaning to write this essay for the longest time. And now, you see, I’ve finally gotten round to doing it.