And now, a few kind words about our tendency to tarry. Turns out it's not always such a bad thing.
(MONEY Magazine) – Do you put off doing your taxes even though Uncle Sam owes you a nice, fat refund? If so, you're hardly alone. About 10% of us leave this patriotic chore until the last possible day. Some end up joining the grim parade of tardy taxpayers doing late-night drive-by mailings at the local post office; others race their way through TurboTax hoping to e-mail their return before the stroke of midnight.
We all know that our unpunctual habits cost us big-time. We pay top prices for last-minute plane tickets and allow late fees to nibble away at our paychecks. Researchers at Carleton University in Ottawa have found that excessive dawdling can also wreak havoc on our health. Procrastinators drink and smoke more than the punctual; they have more trouble sleeping and get more colds.
So why do we put stuff off when we know we shouldn't? Economists tell us it's because we have "time-inconsistent preferences," which is a technician's way of saying that we want the fruits of our labors right now and prefer to push the labors themselves off into some perpetual mañana. (Noneconomists reply: "No, duh.") Psychologists have offered up marginally more useful insights: Our perfectionism makes the tasks at hand seem more daunting than they really are; or we want to give ourselves an excuse if our work falls short.
But there's another reason we like to wait: It works. Consider the time-honored art of the academic all-nighter. Educators reflexively decry the poor study habits that keep students up until dawn, but psychologists are discovering that controlled lollygagging can have some valuable side effects. Nothing quite concentrates the mind like the prospect of a physics exam in the morning. Of students who struggle to master a semester's worth of material in a few hours, Columbia University psychologist William Sommer notes: "Minds mired in torpor ...suddenly transmogrify into dazzling think machines." If not, there's always Jolt Cola.
Or consider what John Perry, a puckish philosophy professor at Stanford, calls "structured procrastination." Most procrastinators don't just stare off into space, Perry writes; they channel their displaced energy into "marginally useful" tasks like sharpening pencils or reorganizing their CDs. But, he suggests, we can move beyond mere busywork. Perry himself, for example, wrote his little essay on procrastination to avoid working on a chapter for a book about the philosophy of language.
Finally, consider that what looks like extreme procrastination may actually be a cry for help from an unhappy psyche. I spent many years in grad school pecking away desultorily at an unfinishable dissertation before it dawned on me that I was in the wrong line of work.
English poet Edward Young famously described procrastination as "the thief of time." He had it backward: Controlled procrastination--putting off things you know are actually put-offable--can help you carve out a few sweet hours to devote to the important things in life: spending more time with your family, writing the great American novel, watching Desperate Housewives ...