The Greek poet Hesiod, writing around 800 B.C., cautioned not to 'put your work off till tomorrow and the day after.' The Roman consul Cicero called this delay “hateful” in the conduct of affairs. The conduct Hesiod and Cicero had cautioned us off centuries is still relevant and prevalent. Today, we call it procrastination; we have been told often to combat it, as its consequences are dire ones.
But I believe we seldom address the root of this conduct. Why do we become excited about a good idea, and then somewhere along the way this excitement fades away? How many good books ideas were shelved? How many entrepreneurial projects were canceled? How many lovers concealed their emotions? And why do often see mediocre people producing plenty (mediocrely, obviously) while smart genuine people are less productive? Why does perfectionism hinder us?
I think that all of the above is more coherent than they appear, and yet procrastination is less straight forward than we tend to perceive.
This essay is an investigation of self-motivated individuals who yarn to achieve creative, risky, and uncharted ideas but forewent those ideas. Why do they do that?
Vik Nithy, a psychology student at the University of New South Wales, tells us that procrastination is a mental argument between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system. The Prefrontal Context is the strict rigid part that keeps reminding us that we need to remain fit, we should save money, and work on our assignments. The Limbic System is the delinquent, the primitive part of our brains, the one that entices us to scan social media and develops a sudden interest in weather channels.
'So why is that the limbic system always seems to win the argument?' asks Nithy. To answer this question, Nithy micros in on a specific and central part of the Limbic System: Amygdala, the part that controls fear and anxiety, and the fight-of-flight response to threatening stimulus, because at times of stress, say: a truck is bearing down the street on you, the Prefrontal Context shuts down, and you lose the ability of sifting through your options, so Amygdala makes a jump to safe side.
Similarly: procrastination is a manifestation of a mild anxiety response where the Prefrontal Context mildly shuts down. An apt question here is: what are we afraid of? When facing an unpleasant task, we fear failure; and this is a far more crippling fear then we might like to think. We don’t want that conformation that we are not smart enough or not good enough, so instead of admitting our mediocrity our mind blames an alternative: laziness, shortage of time, ambiguity of the task, lack of resources, the list is quite endless. It's much easier to say: 'I'm lazy', than to say 'I'm a failure'. It's easier to say: 'I could have worked hard', than to say 'I worked hard and but I'm not smart enough'. We dismiss failure as, to quote Nithy, 'a positive learning experience'.
So a solution here would be a proper planning, and this leads to taming and training the prefrontal context. This is easier said than done: Dave Grossman, author of On Killing, says that at times of heightened stress people dial 411 instead of 911, or don't press dial on their cell phone. 'You must rehearse it,' Grossman says, 'because only if you have rehearsed it will it be there.' Rehearsal is the key to controlling the prefrontal context and diminishing the role of Amygdala and, sequentially, limbic system.
Let's not forget the other important component: redefining failure from a 'shameful experience' to 'an integral part of the process.'
When we rethink positively the way we think our habits, we can shape the world as we desire.
Let's take the concept of procrastination a step further. Suppose we were possessed by an idea, we do the homework: study the previous and potential market, the competitors, etc… but somewhere in process we stop. We get caught up in the technicalities that it hinder us; somewhere in the back of our minds we dread the task, we perceive it to be too bulky, or that we might do it injustice, and that if we failed, criticism would be harsh.
In a journal of psychotherapy titled Metacognitive Beliefs About Procrastination, a group of British PhD holders described Decisional Procrastination as the purposive delay in the making decisions within a certain time frame. But what if we reached a point of forgoing the decision? We end up burying the good idea. But most importantly: what leads us to that status?
I think it's important that we address the clutter that hinders our decision mechanism.
This is a problem that was addressed in the mid-20th century, and it's known Information Overload (also known as Information Glut, Data Smog, Infobesity and Infoxication). This problem is more evident in our current time and age where internet provided us information in abundance. In his 1964 book The Managing of Organizations, author Bertram Gross, “Information overload occurs when the amount of input to a system exceeds its processing capacity. Decision makers have fairly limited cognitive processing capacity. Consequently, when information overload occurs, it is likely that a reduction in decision quality will occur.”
This, consequently, leads to a psychological phenomenon known as the Curse of Knowledge, which is said to occur because better informed individuals fail to ignore the privileged knowledge that they possess, thus 'cursed' and unable to sell their products at a value that less-informed counterparts would view acceptable.
With all of this, is it any wonder that a many great ideas fade away? And unless we manage to achieve balance between decision making and information overload, the situation won't improve.
The mediocre performers aren't usually concerned with these threats, their vision is limited by a contemporary trend, consequently they don't think afar and they don't suffer the information overload. In the literature of psychology this is known as Dunning–Kruger effect; this cognitive bias leads illusory superiority, meaning that mediocre individuals rate their ability much higher than its actual status. Charles Darwin famously said: 'Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.'
This illusory mindset is observable when individuals are more interested in celebritism rather than genuinity. They want to make a kill. They are interested in seeing their names atop headlines rather than intellectual contribution. Thus, for example, they want to be a writer, rather than writing well.
And why are mediocre performers well received? I think Eric Schmidt, chief executive of Google, answered it aptly “… the abundance of information people are exposed to through technology-based sources could be having an impact on the thought process, obstructing deep thinking, understanding, impedes the formation of memories and makes learning more difficult.'
And this leads to a more critical point: what often escape our mind is the unseen consequences of procrastination: depression, low self-esteem and poor performance. But sometimes those symptoms dissolve as we walk to a cunning trap: Self-Reproach. Oscar Wilde best described the hazards of this trap: ‘There is a luxury in self-reproach. When we blame ourselves, we feel that no one else has a right to blame us. It is the confession, not the priest, that gives us absolution.’ When we reach that false absolution, we often cease redemption. And this manifests also greatly among the Perfectionists; they have the luxury of saying: 'I tried to commit to my high standards, and I couldn’t accept something less'. And thus they walk away from the idea, unaware of the self-handicapping excuse they used.
We need to acknowledge that no one starts perfect; be that musicians, athletes, writers, public speakers, chess players. Read the following account by Philip Norman, the author of Shout!, the Beatles biography, one of the most celebrated bands of the 20th century: 'They were no good onstage when they went there and they were very good when they came back... They weren't disciplined onstage at all before that. But when they came back, they sounded like no one else. It was the making of them.'
Here is an account by band member John Lennon years later: 'we got better and we got more confidence.'
Rehearsing, balancing between decision making and information overload, and progressing through failure to excellence are weapons to combat procrastination. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said 'No man yet knows what it is, nor can, till that person has exhibited it.'