Excuse the impertinent question, but why are you reading this column? Is it because you’ve made a considered decision to spend time with the Financial Times today, or are you looking for a way not to have to do the thing — you know, that thing — that you’re meant to be doing?
If it’s the latter then it is possible that you, like me — and about 20 per cent of the population, according to the American Psychological Association — are a procrastinator.
Because of the fact that everyone procrastinates at least to some extent, you will find many people who claim this label: inglorious though it may be, it appears to have some kind of humble-braggy social capital. But it is only a select group of us for whom the condition is chronic, who are tormented sufficiently by the malady to have really earned the badge.
So are we incorrigible or can we do something about it? Should we? Or is it an important “part of the creative process”, as a friend put it to me recently as he tried to reassure me that it was acceptable — admirable, even, I fancied — that I had spent the entire day avoiding what I was meant to be doing?
Many people make this argument. The organisational psychologist Adam Grant, for instance, wrote a 2016 New York Times op-ed under the headline “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate”. Grant describes how, rather than sitting down and typing, he instead just waited. And inspiration did indeed strike: “While procrastinating (ie, thinking) . . . it dawned on me.”
“Procrastination (ie, thinking)” strikes me as a non sequitur; what Grant describes is not procrastinating. Delaying a task because you think doing so may actually benefit you, or make you more creative, should not be conflated with procrastination. Tim Pychyl, a psychologist and author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, gives me a useful definition of the latter: “the voluntary delay of an intended action, despite expecting to be worse off for the delay”. Grant was doing the opposite.
And the procrastination zone is not the happy, productive place that Grant seems to have been inhabiting during his experiment. It is instead what Tim Urban, in a famous post on his Wait But Why blog, describes as the “dark playground”.
“The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread,” Urban writes. His examples of the “fun” activities you can partake in include the “refreshing phone email again and again rollercoaster thrill ride” and “looking at all 1,200 Facebook photos of high school person you were never friends with adventure volcano”.
I know this playground so well. There are few moments of inspiration to be had here, just rising anxiety and probably, at some point, sheer panic.
While procrastination is often thought to be about poor time management, it’s more a question of poor emotion management. It allows us, temporarily, to avoid uncomfortable feelings — stress, fear of failure, boredom — but it also leads to low self-esteem.
“There’s this collateral damage on our well being,” Fuschia Sirois, professor of social and health psychology at Durham University, tells me. “When we know we’re not following through with things, and we’re breaking promises to ourselves and others, we don’t feel good.” Given that procrastination stems from wanting to avoid negative feelings in the first place, we then find ourselves stuck looking for more and more ways to escape our emotions, which in turn keep worsening.
This self-sabotaging cycle is grimly familiar. But could there be a “cure”? Some practical things help, such as breaking down large tasks into smaller ones, making things easier for yourself by preparing, and eliminating distractions.
The more important work, though, is at the emotional level. The first step is to acknowledge that this behaviour is perfectly normal and perfectly OK, and you are not a bad person. The second step is to try to stop.
I have been gratingly aware, in writing this column, of every time I stray off track. But funnily enough, being more aware of it than usual — more “in the present”, as mindfulness gurus might say — and realising that self-compassion rather than self-flagellation is the kinder, more productive option seems to have made me procrastinate less than usual.
I hope reading it has not felt like a depressing ride in the dark playground. But I also hope that, if you have something else you’d like to be getting on with, you’ll take a deep breath, forgive yourself, and crack on.