My thought for the day: Never put off until tomorrow what you can delay to the day after
By Tom Utley for the Daily Mail
Published: 00:00 GMT, 6 July 2012 | Updated: 00:00 GMT, 6 July 2012
To do or not to do: A study by internet search engine Bing found that we waste an average of 69 minutes a day, adding up to three years of our adult lives, on procrastination
Before I get started on this week’s column, I must just nip downstairs for a cup of coffee and a glance at the crossword. Then perhaps I should collect my spare suit from the dry cleaners where I left it last Friday, meaning to pick it up on Monday. Bear with me…
I’m back at my desk now. But — oh, dear — an email has just popped up from my old friend Graham Lord, the celebrated literary biographer, asking if I’ve had time to run my eye over a manuscript he sent me ages ago, asking for my opinion.
I’d better just answer it before I go any further, and explain why I haven’t quite got round to reading it yet in spite of my solemn promise that I’d tackle it last weekend.
Right, that’s that sorted. Now, where was I? Ah, yes, I should really have written this column a couple of days ago because that was when I read the study by the internet search engine Bing which found that we waste an average of 69 minutes a day, adding up to three years of our adult lives, on procrastination.
What? Only 69 minutes? I have to say that what surprised me most about the finding was how staggeringly low the figure was.
Admittedly, the survey found that a fifth of us waste more than two hours a day putting off what we ought to be doing, with women more likely to confess their guilt than men. But even so, a mere two hours must surely be a gross underestimate.
Speaking for myself, I reckon I waste at least 12 of my waking hours each day on procrastinating, from the time I spend lolling in bed in the morning after the alarm goes off to the moment in the small hours when I tell myself that I may as well put off brushing my teeth because, you never know, tonight’s Hardtalk on BBC News 24 may not be as mind-numbingly boring as usual.
Indeed, all my life I’ve been guided by Mark Twain’s famous dictum: ‘Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.’
As it happens, Bing’s survey coincides with the publication of a book by a former Wall Street banker — Wait: The Useful Art Of Procrastination (Profile, £12.99) — in which Frank Partnoy argues that delaying decisive action can often be the wisest course.
I suppose I should admit that I haven’t actually got round to reading the book yet (and I strongly suspect I never will), but I have read an article by the author this week in which he lays out his thesis. And I won’t pretend I’m impressed.
Like so many self-help books — and I hope I’m not misjudging him — his seems to be little more than a string of statements of the bleeding obvious, interspersed with shameless bragging by Partnoy about what a terrific and well organised guy he is.
‘In fact, whatever we are doing, we are by definition not working on everything else,’ he tells us. ‘The issue is not how to stop procrastinating, since we will always be not working on everything else. Instead, our real challenge is to figure out how to procrastinate well; how to work on something that is more important than the something we are not working on.’
Well, who would have thought it?
Piling up: The percentage of people who admit to procrastinating 'often' has increased sixfold since 1978, with students reporting that they spend more than a third of their time putting things off
But it is Partnoy’s self-congratulation that I can’t stand, from his boast about the expertise in ‘delay management’ which he developed as a child to this prize example of auto-eroticism: ‘Back in the 1990s, procrastination had served my colleagues in Morgan Stanley’s derivatives group well; a few dozen of us made $1 billion in two years while playing chess, reading hunting magazines and not returning phone calls.’
I guess we’re supposed to think: ‘Wonderful, marvellous you.’ But in the fit of Bolshevism that has seized me since the great banking scandal broke, all I want to say is: ‘Don’t be so disgusting.’
To be fair, Partnoy does make an interesting observation when he says the percentage of people who admit to procrastinating ‘often’ has increased sixfold since 1978, with students reporting that they spend more than a third of their time putting things off.
Interesting, but unsurprising when you consider the advent of the mobile phone, the text message and the internet, with the massive temptations and opportunities they offer for wasting time.
He is certainly right, too, when he says the best advice can sometimes be: ‘Don’t just do something. Stand there.’
I think of the reams of ill-considered legislation, passed in hasty response to a big news story and repented at leisure. Take the legislation against handguns, introduced after the appalling tragedy of the Dunblane massacre. It meant that our Olympic shooting team had to practise abroad, but did nothing to curb a surge in illegal gun sales. Indeed, it probably exacerbated it.
Or consider the Dangerous Dogs Act, brought in after a quiet summer for news, in which our trade found nothing more arresting to fill our news pages than reports of dog attacks on children, which have happened since the beginning of time and continue unabated to this day.
This Act wrote off entire breeds, including some of the country’s sweetest natured pets, and led to ludicrous legal wrangling over such questions as: when is a pit bull not a pit bull? But surely Partnoy must realise that in most cases, procrastination is the worst possible policy.
Anyone who has ever delayed over writing a thank-you letter could tell him that. Write it the morning after the party, and you can get away with a short note praising the food, the company and the hostess’s frock. But the longer you leave it, the longer and more brilliant the letter must be. A couple of lines delivered a fortnight late are downright insulting.
I find the same with replying to readers’ letters. Some are straightforward, and can be answered with a simple and truthful ‘I’m thrilled that you enjoyed my column’ — or else: ‘I’m sorry that you want me and my family to die slow and agonising deaths.’
But others are so moving, and so full of personal stories, that a formulaic response just won’t do. So I put them on one side, telling myself I’ll answer them when I’ve had a good think — and the pile on my desk just grows higher and higher, to rebuke me every morning when I walk into the office.
But I flatter myself that my sins of procrastination pale into utter insignificance beside those of the leaders of Europe, who seem to have almost nothing in common apart from their watchword, ‘manana’.
Look at Angela Merkel, every once in a while producing a thin strip of sticking plaster as the euro collapses before the eyes of the world.
Farce: Hasty ill-considered legislation like the Dangerous Dogs Act, which led to ludicrous legal wrangling over such questions as: when is a pit bull not a pit bull?
Or look at our own blessed Coalition. I don’t know whether David Cameron and Nick Clegg are still on speaking terms, but if they are, I imagine their conversations must go something like this.
DC: ‘I say, Nick, old bean, there seems to be something of an economic disaster hurtling towards us from the eurozone. It looks as if it may make a bad situation a thousand times worse. Do you think we ought to be doing something to help families and businesses pull through it?’
NC: ‘Well, perhaps we should, one day. But for the moment, have you noticed that the House of Lords is about the one part of our constitution that works pretty well? Why don’t we spend the next few months trying to rip it apart and start again? That should keep Parliament nice and busy.’
DC: ‘Good idea, old chum. And while we’re about it, have you noticed that most people, gay and straight, seems pretty content with the idea of civil partnerships? So let’s annoy everyone by legislating for gay marriage, against the facts of life and the teachings of every major religion.’
NC: ‘Spiffing idea, Dave. So that’s agreed, then. The economy can wait.’
This is the exact equivalent of my trips to the dry cleaners and the canteen when I have a column to write. And the only word to describe it is ‘deranged’.
More from Tom Utley for the Daily Mail...
The comments below have not been moderated.
The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.
We are no longer accepting comments on this article.
Share or comment on this article
Most of us will be familiar to some extent with procrastination. ‘I’ll do it tomorrow!’ ‘It’ll all work itself out.’ ‘I would but there’s just some other stuff I want to do first…’
Psychologist Professor Clarry Lay, prominent writer on procrastination, characterises procrastination as the occurrence of ‘a temporal gap between intended behaviour and enacted behaviour’. In other words, it is when there is a significant time lag between when we originally intend to do something and when we actually get around to it.
It’s important to distinguish between procrastination and prioritizing – sometimes it may be necessary to postpone a task if it truly is less important or urgent than something else that needs to be done, or we are physically unfit to do the task at that time. However when neither of these are the case and we are simply putting it off for the sake of reluctance to do it, this is procrastination.
We can procrastinate for a number of reasons, from the basic obvious ones: reluctance to do a job that is uncomfortable or unpleasant, fear, preference to do something else that is less so, ready availability of distractions, laziness – to the more serious psychological struggles such as depression and anxiety.
Of course some level of procrastination is normal, we may all have the odd occasion where we favour a good catch up on the phone with a friend over the essay we really should be getting on with, or leave the washing up until the morning so we can watch something good on TV. But when it becomes a repeating cycle, it can actually become very detrimental to our state of mind, and cause serious problems in everyday life.
It is important to make sure we don’t get stuck in patterns of procrastinating, and we can use three basic tools (‘RUT’, if it helps you remember) for this:
Do you find yourself regularly doing any of the following? If so, warning bells should go off…
–Putting your ‘low priority’ To Do tasks first
–Avoiding making any To Do lists altogether because your don’t fancy seeing them written down (we may sometimes convince ourselves that things will just magically get done or go away by themselves if we don’t fully admit they are there…)
–Leaving important items on your To Do list for a long time
–Sitting down to start an important task, and immediately getting up to put the kettle on
–Reading emails several times without actually replying to them or doing anything about them
–Saying ‘yes’ to unimportant tasks that others ask you to do when you already have more important things to get on with
–Waiting for the ‘right time’ to tackle something important (knowing full well there probably will be no ‘right time’)
Why are you putting off these tasks? As mentioned above, there can be many reasons for procrastination. Talking to someone about these, or writing them down in a journal if this feels more comfortable, can help greatly if there are certain fears or reservations you may have underlying your reluctance to do something.
You may realise that in fact you are really worried about failing this task, or not doing it well enough. You may be worried that once you start, you will have to face even more things that need to be addressed.
Try to be gentle with yourself and take it easy; confront one problem at a time. Consider any fears you may have, and think about what you may be able to do to help overcome these or find support with them, to make the task easier to face.
JUST DO IT!
Sometimes we can get too caught up in the first two stages – realising all the things we may be procrastinating about, feeling ashamed or stressed that we are doing this, thinking about all the reasons we may be doing it and then becoming overwhelmed with that….
It can all get too much, and for that reason it is vital to move swiftly through these steps, winding up at the place we really need to be to end this cycle: action.
Having completed even just one important task that we have been procrastinating about can feel great, a huge relief, and inspire the confidence and motivation to then tackle the next job.
Again, take it one step at a time, don’t leap to the other end of the spectrum and try to achieve a To Do list as long as Santa’s in one day, because chances are you will not manage it and then may feel defeated about that! But ultimately, action is the solution and, one tick at a time, you may begin to cross off those looming chores that just aren’t doing themselves.
Catherine is a BSc Psychology student at Cardiff University, currently on a professional placement year in the private mental health sector.
She helped launch the Cardiff 'Student Minds' (formerly 'Student-Run Self-Help') charity group providing support for students with eating disorders in 2011, and continues to volunteer with the charity alongside her studies.