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

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Procrastinating 101: From Hammock to "Halo"

In week 5 of our sojourn with Dr. Piers Steel's The Procrastination Equation, we consider Chapter 4, "ProcrastiNations:  How Modern Life Ensures Distraction." 

Dr. Steel opens with an engaging tale of his personal struggles with video game addiction.  Of course, he passes off his most recent skirmish as having been in the interests of science.  Thusly:

To better write it [the chapter], I reacquainted myself with an old distraction, purposefully re-infecting myself with what had afflicted me for so long as a student--video games. . . . for the purposes of this book. . . . Oh, the sacrifices I make for science!

Wow!  Taking one for the cause.  And his drug of choice?  Conquer Club, the electronic version of Risk, a board game which nearly ended my first marriage, long before I eventually ended it myself, for much more mature reasons.

Steel identifies the following "elements" of his ensuing enslavement, typical of the situation too many of us find ourselves in these days.

  • proximity to temptation
  • virulence of the temptation
  • variable reinforcement
  • instantaneous reward

Following his consideration of the harmful nature of this form of entertainment, he goes on to discuss the even greater damage wrought by TV, in the six decades plus since it was welcomed into our hearths and homes, and its ongoing inroads with near-universal adoption of cable and digital service, DVR technology, and migration to computers and smart phones.

And then there's the Internet itself, with its (ahem) blogosphere, 24/7 email, and social networking.  (Excuse me while I take a brief break to check my Facebook page.)  Not to mention the lure, for an information junkie like myself, of all the reference material (refereed and not), arcane tidbits, and spiritually uplifting (or not) stuff (for lack of a better word.  No, wait.  My computer-housed thesaurus suggests "resources."  Yes, much better.)

And the games!  No console necessary.  (My personal Waterloo?  Bejeweled BlitzAnd it's on Facebook.  A two-fer!)  One-stop shopping for the procrastinator.  Oh, and I forgot to mention the shopping!  (Where else could I spend 45 minutes searching for the exotic new tea-processing device I recently saw in Seattle?  Or the perfect, like-new triathlon suit for my next race?)

Dr. Steel doesn't mention porn, but no matter whose numbers you believe, it seems pretty clear that the pursuit of prurient interests on the Internet is not adding to our productivity.  One much-cited source tells us that 25% of all search engine requests (68 million a day) and 35% of all Internet downloads are pornographic; that every second, 28,258 Internet users are viewing porn; and that 20% of men and 13% of women (but not this one) admit to watching pornography at work.  Another claims that 70% of all Internet porn traffic occurs during the 9 to 5 workday.

But whatever we're doing on the Internet, and the TV, and our cell phones, smart and otherwise, and our Wii's and Playstations and X-Boxes, and our iPads, a lot of it could properly be termed procrastination.

As Dr. Steel says, "Every distraction the modern world offers also exacerbates the mismatch between who we are and what we need to be."  

And, more pointedly, 

Modernization brings with it procrastination.  As our economies have grown over the last few decades, we have experienced a fivefold increase in chronic procrastination.  In the 1970s, 4 to 5 percent of people surveyed indicated that they considered procrastination a key personal characteristic.  Today, that figure is between 20 and 25 percent, the logical consequence of filling our lives with ever more enticing temptations [or of ever more books, articles, and blogs about procrastination?].
And while work is as much fun as it ever was (!), whole industries have grown up around the competition for our time and attention.   And with all this proliferation of entertaining alternatives,

[t]he rise of procrastination is hard to avoid, given its deep roots in our brain’s neurobiology.  The limbic system focuses on the now while the prefrontal cortex deals with longer-term concerns. . . . Though both the limbic system and the prefrontal cortex come together to reach a final decision, their duet ensures the rise of procrastination.

And the effect is purposeful, relying on sophisticated design and advertising:

Businesses respond to our dominant desires, so there is no coercion or conspiracy here, just the invisible hand of the market building a limbic system wonderland. With the ubiquitous overemphasis on the immediate and the material, on the instant and the consumable, people are seduced into putting off long-term but ultimately more satisfying goals involving career achievement, volunteering in the community, raising a family or following a spiritual path.  Materialism and consumerism are merely emergent properties of our neurobiology given free rein in a free market.

As he wraps up the chapter, Dr. Steel builds to a crescendo of foreboding, from this Aldous Huxley quote, from Brave New World Revisited-- 
 "All the resources of psychology and the social sciences are mobilized" with the aim of controlling people by finding "the best ways to take advantage of their ignorance and to exploit their irrationality."  

to this from Neil Postman, in Amusing Ourselves to Death--

“the rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.”

And finally, to this—

In sum, the free market is geared toward providing increasingly irresistible temptations that distract us from our greater goals.

Never before in our history have there been as many temptations, as succulently devised, as readily available, and as adeptly marketed.  Adam and Eve only had to deal with a juicy apple purveyed by a serpent.  Nowadays, our apple is caramel coated and chocolate dipped, marketed with a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in a blitz of commercials, pop-ups, and inserts.  Inevitably, as our lives drown in these diversions, our procrastination is on the rise.

The exploitation of the limbic system is baked into capitalism and you can’t stop it without making the entire wonderful wealth-generating machinery grind to a halt.  Someone will always create a product that provides short-term pleasure along with considerable but deferred pain simply because we will buy it.  Consequently, dealing with constant temptation and its potential for creating procrastination is and will continue to be part of living in this world. 

But, lucky for us, we

are reading this book. . . . Learning better ways to cope with temptation and procrastination is what we will be doing together in later chapters; we will make the Procrastination Equation work for us, one variable at a time.

Except earlier, Steel hazarded a guess that those of us making our way through this third chapter would have already been engaged in reading the book for about three months—based on statistics about how much time people spend, relatively, watching TV versus reading.  So the (over)haul is likely to be a long one.  

And what of those of us who will remain unremediated?   

I've spent a fair amount of the last, well, more than a decade, reading about young people who are "twice exceptional," "driven to distraction," and "differently abled," in the attempt to facilitate the education and uprearing of my middle child (And what kind of word is that, anyway, uprearing?  And what might it mean about the tendency to "rear up" that I observed in that same dyslexic, ADD, and eventually depressed son, as he wrangled with the academic powers-that-were in his tender years?).  But are any of us, however abled, immune from the cultural influences so hauntingly described by Dr. Steel?  And which is the new, and which the retro neural architecture, and "learning style?" 

Will the successful educational institution, and workplace of the future accommodate the brains our technology is rebuilding, so that work becomes more reinforcing?  My husband, the university professor, has adapted his pedagogy to reflect the cable-ready students who must take his courses.  The end result?  What appears to be real learning seems to be taking place, and students flock to sign up for his classes, and swell his waiting lists.  But is this pandering, akin to the infotainment that passes for news coverage on our TV screens?

Dr. Steel's description of the forces of distraction is compelling, if distressing.  He does not, however, examine the cultural shifts involved in what might be termed our present day procrastination hysteria.  As leisure shrinks, and work and its demands consume us more and more, are we more focused on the unproductivity we therefore problematize?  Steel provides this example of early 20th century exhortations about procrastination, from William Bagley's 1911 treatise on "The Craftmanship of Teaching," in which he described 
the "hammock on the porch," the "fascinating novel," and the "happy company of friends" as the "seductive siren call of change and diversion, that evil spirit of procrastination!"

Were the hammock, the novel, and the friends' happy company really so much less distracting a century ago?  Or were those who turned to them perhaps less overwhelmed with work, and less concerned about dalliance?

For myself, as I wrote this piece over the course of the day, I took a page out of Dr. Steel’s book, literally, and got in some Solitaire ‘Til Dawn (Forty Thieves), and a little Facebooking.  I also stopped off at the donut shop for some empty calories to celebrate my son’s return to school, after a several year hiatus for academic detoxing.  I spent some highly distracting, and enjoyable time in a hammock, socializing with my husband and kids.  I read a bit.  I checked my email to see what time I was supposed to meet my running partner.

I'm not always clear what is really "productive," goal-oriented use of my time, and what is real distraction.  I do know, though, that I am enjoying wrestling with Dr. Steel's ideas, and their articulate presentation.

Next week--Chapter 5:  The Personal Price of Procrastination.

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