Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Procrastinating 101: Tick, Tock

Think you "work better under pressure?"  Think again.

Joseph R. Ferrari, Ph.D., whose new book, Still Procrastinating?  The No-Regrets Guide to Getting it Done, is our Procrastinating 101 guide for the next few weeks, says you, and I, and all the rest of us self-proclaimed adrenaline junkies are fooling ourselves. 

Ferrari challenges this premise on several points.

  • He cites research asserting that the quality of our efforts and their products are compromised, not enhanced, by last-minute work
    Procrastinators make more errors and complete less of a task than nonprocrastinators do when there is a time limit.  Procrastinators under various time-limited conditions make more errors and complete fewer of a task's components than nonprocrastinators do, even though procrastinators believe they perform as well as others.
  • He raises the "chicken-and-egg" issue, holding that the adrenaline rush some of us associate with deadline-chasing is, in psychological terms, a consequence of the stress of such an undertaking, rather than an antecedent condition, motivating and heightening performance.  In other words, the pressure isn't helping us to work better; it's a symptom of the adrenaline we're forced to recruit in the process of rushing to get something done.
  • Since his research has shown that we procrastinators are concerned with what others think about us, and that "procrastinators are great excuse makers," Ferrari suggests that we are using this claim as a socially acceptable excuse for putting off work.
  • Ferrari says our breathless eleventh-hour feats are unhealthy.  He cites studies showing the health costs of living on the edge of untimeliness, listing headaches, body aches, colds, the flu, tooth decay, stress, strokes, and apparent immune system suppression as among the physical results of procrastinating.  Not to mention the negative effects of putting off exercise, diet improvements, and needed health care. 
I don't really quarrel with much of Ferrari's message, though the retired researcher in me had a quibble or two with some of the methodology.  For example, people's self-reported level of  procrastination measured at various stages in the holiday shopping season seemed likely to be as much a result as a cause of finding themselves shopping as Santa packed his sleigh.  

I have reached the place myself where I no longer take pride in swallowing swords, playing with fire, or pulling an all-nighter to complete a project.  I don't work best under pressure, if I ever did.  Ferrari maintains that, for most of us, the times we point to as evidence of this belief are in the distant past.  The glory days of procrastination, so to speak.

But I'm beginning to suspect that Ferrari doesn't really like us--the chronic procrastinators he takes pains to distinguish himself from at the book's outset--all that much.  The chapter's end hints at a bit of a judgmental stance toward those of us who hold to the "widely held misconception" about the merits of working under pressure.  Ferrari advocates that we substitute the "thrill of finishing early." He admonishes us to stop asking if a stated deadline is a "drop-dead deadline."
Don't insult others by asking when someone really wants something; assume that the person told you the first time.
(Is it just me, or does this smack of "just say no?")  He rues the practice of holding midnight parties at the post office on April 15th, for last-minute filers.  
This is wrong.  Instead, we should have a party for those who file on February 15 or March 15.  Don't reward people for being late!  Give the worm back to the early bird.
And he closes the chapter with this tired adage:
Just because other people wait until the last minute to perform a task (such as holiday preparations) doesn't mean it's the right way to do it.  Remember what your mother used to say?  "If [insert friend's name here] jumped off a bridge, would you jump off, too?"  Listen to your mom.
Okay.  But what if the bridge were on fire?

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