It’s hard to see how procrastination per se could be adaptive. The costs are often considerable, the benefits miniscule, and it wastes all the mental effort people put into making plans in the first place. Studies have shown that students who routinely procrastinate consistently get lower grades; businesses that miss deadlines due to the procrastination of their employees can lose millions of dollars. Yet many human beings can’t help themselves, and an article that just appeared in Slate suggests that procrastination may be a cross-cultural universal.
Why, when so little good comes of procrastinating, do people persist in doing it so much?
The problem, of course, is not that we put things off, per se; if we have to buy groceries and do our taxes, we literally can’t do both at the same time. But often we postpone the things that need to get done in favor of things—like watching television or playing video games— that most decidedly don’t. Procrastination is a sign of our inner kluge for the simple reason that it shows how our top-level goals (spend more time with the children, finish that novel) are routinely undermined by goals with considerably less priority. (If, that is, getting caught up on Desperate Housewives can be counted as a “goal” at all.)
People need their down time and I don’t begrudge them that, but procrastination does highlight a fundamental glitch in our cognitive “design”: the gap between the machinery that sets our goals (off-line) and the machinery that chooses (on-line, in the moment) which goals to follow.
The things we procrastinate the most on are tasks that meet two conditions: we don’t enjoy doing them and we don’t have to do them now; given half a chance we put off the aversive and savor the fun, often without really considering the ultimate costs. Procrastination is the bastard step-child of future-discounting (that tendency to devalue the future in relation to the present) and the use of pleasure as a quick-and-dirty compass.
We zone out, we chicken out, we deceive. To be human is to fight a life-long, uphill battle for self-control. Why? Because evolution left us clever enough to set reasonable goals, but without the willpower to see them through.
[The text of this blog entry is adapted from Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind]
My favorite part refers to an informal survey on violinist.com, according to which
36 percent of participants said they had left their violins somewhere by accident. Of the 93 who said where they'd left the instruments, 18 percent said in classrooms; 16 percent in restaurants; 12 percent in cars; 12 percent in practice rooms; 9 percent on trains; and 2 percent in the bathroom. Three percent said in taxis.
Makes me feel slightly better about the iPod I left last week in Midway airport....
I had a brain-kluge moment this last week. I had just been issued a new medical card from work (they just changed insurance providers.) I carefully thought to myself "I need this—don't lose it." The next day I took my new card into the pharmacy to fill a prescription and explained that they needed to enter the new information, etc. They took my card to do whatever they need to do to put it into their system. When I returned, and they handed me my Rx, I distinctly remember the pharmacist saying "your card is in the bag." On the way out of the pharmacy, a homeless man approached me asking for money. I was distracted by him and explaining I didn't have any change etc. as I walked the half a block home and he followed me. While doing so, I reached into the bag, took out the medication, and threw the bag away.Three days later (today) I realized I must've thrown the card away in the bag. Even though I had been specifically prioritizing the location of the card in the bag just 90 seconds earlier, the presence of the homeless man had somehow erased that from my mind and replaced it with other worries, enabling me to completely forget about what I'd been focusing on just minutes earlier.Now, tomorrow, I guess I've gotta call H.R. and ask for them to facilitate me getting another medical card reissued, even though they JUST issued it. I had the damn thing in my possession for less than 48 hours.
Interruption is, of course, the royal road to bollocksing human memory.
Comedian/writer/autobiographer/all-around-genius Steve Martin wrote a wonderful piece along these lines a few years ago, in his pastime for the "over-50 set":
Here’s a way [you] can easily kill a good half-hour:
— Place your car keys in your right hand.
— With your left hand, call a friend and confirm a lunch or dinner date.
— Hang up the phone.
— Now look for your car keys.
Palm Pilots help me remember phone numbers and appointments, but every time lose my keys or walk into the bedroom and forget why I went there in the first-place, I wish I could order a brain implant....