Brain Pickings

What Is Procrastination: 5 Perspectives

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We meant to publish this last Friday.

What exactly is procrastination, this seemingly universal source of everyday vexation? And what can we really do about it? How did it evolve as an adaptive mechanism and does it serve any creative purpose? Today, we look at the infamous phenomenon from five different angles, from the scientific to the philosophical to the playful, and hope to emerge with some insight for tomorrow or, at the very least, a smile for today.

JOHNNY KELLY

A long, long time ago we raved about this fantastic animated exploration of the nature of procratination by artist Johnny Kelly, created as his Royal College of Art graduation film in 2007 — an investigative study of putting things off that is as thoughtful as it is creatively outstanding.

(You may recall more of Kelly’s work from pickings past.)

DAN ARIELY ON PROCRASTINATION

Behaviroal economist Dan Ariely, author of the excellent Predictably Irrational and its fantastic sequel, The Upside of Irrationality, is easily the world’s most compelling researcher on the relationship between emotionality, rationality, morality and decision-making. In this BigThink interview, he breaks down the psychological underpinning of procrastination and what we can do about it.

We say we’re not designed to care about the future. We just can’t change that. We just can’t change the fact that we’ll think every day: what I do now will translate to 30 years from now. So instead of what we can do, is we can create other benefits that will be more in the present; kind of import new benefits for the present.”

TALES OF MERE EXISTENCE

Episode 3 of the 2006 season of Lev Yilmaz‘s YouTube sensation Tales of Mere Existence tackles the issue of procrastination with pen, paper and Lev’s characteristically humble humor.

For more of Lev’s genius, we highly recommend his book, Sunny Side Down — a charming adaptation of his video tales to the printed page with original comics on various stages and circumstances of everyday life, from childhood to twentysomething uncertainty.

ELLEN DEGENERES HERE & NOW

We heart Ellen. And this bit about procrastination from her excellent 2003 HBO special, Here & Now, reveals every brilliant, hilarious, intelligently funny reason why.

For what it’s worth, we think Ellen is one of the great entertainers of our time, the ones who manage to sidestep today’s easy weapons of quasi-humor — insults, stereotyping, pointless profanity — to deliver a kind of comedic genius that is timeless, universal and built on poking honest fun in tender human truths without drawing blood. Here & Now is that genius at its pinnacle and we highly recommend it.

THE THIEF OF TIME

The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination is an absorbing anthology featuring essays by a wide range of scholars and writers spanning the entire spectrum of theoretical and empirical.

From the morality of it (is procrastination a vice?) to its possible antidotes (what are the best coping strategies?), the book is an essential piece of psychosocial insight. That is, if you get around to reading it.

For a closer look at the book and what insights from it can tell us about ourselves, do read this excellent inaugural New Yorker article by James Surowiecki, which offers both a fascinating historical perspective and a practical takeaway from decades of research on the subject.

This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy.” ~ James Surowiecki

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