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

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Procrastinating 101: The Horror! The Horror!

Dum da dum dum.  Or whatever sound means "impending doom" to you.  That's the appropriate lead-in to Chapter 6 of Piers Steel's The Procrastination Equation:  How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.

In this grimmest chapter yet, entitled "The Economic Cost of Procrastination:  How Businesses and Nations Lose," Dr. Steel builds on the dark ground of Chapter 5.  Here, the focus goes macro, and we are confronted with an estimated societal bill for our collective procrastination.  Dr. Steel highlights our losses in the areas of work-time frittered away, savings postponed, and political procrastination.  The most haunting instance of the latter is the blind official eye being turned to the increasingly imminent threat of "environmental depletion and destruction."

Using relatively conservative figures, Dr. Steel arrives at the somewhat stupefying number $1,264,1200,000,000  [sic], which represents the value of time lost annually in the U.S. as a result of employees procrastinating on the job.  He goes on to detail some of what "workers" are doing, instead of working.  The list includes "video snacking," visiting pornographic sites, social networking, game playing, and excessive--and disruptive--email checking.  Some of us make use of technology to hide our technological abuses, like a "Boss Key," which allows the dawdler to quickly switch the screen to feign legitimate activity should said boss poke his pointy little head into one's cubicle. 

Dr. Steel's discussion of procrastination related to retirement savings essentially drills down on the previous chapter's mention of compound interest--which, he reminds us, Einstein "called the eighth wonder of the world."  Dr. Steel provides a dismal portrait of how the average American shoots him/herself in the financial foot on which the "golden years" must stand, by failing to save in time for this eventuality.  This fiduciary profligacy is "compounded," but not in a good way, by the host of other bad decisions these financial grasshoppers are likely to make.  Like signing up for variable rate mortgages; borrowing against houses and meager retirement funds; and relying on "pay day" loans, which can expose the borrower to annual interest rates of more than 500 percent.

Steel does hint at how such individual financial procrastination, in the aggregate, affects the economy as a whole, in this statement:  "Furthermore, since the dollars you save are invested, savings can help the nation as a whole, spurring economic expansion."  

However, I would be interested in seeing this relationship explored more deeply.  Clearly, the way so many of us mishandle our money, partly as a result of procrastination (though perhaps more as a result of mechanisms of capitalism), has repercussions for the health of our own economy, and globally--something demonstrated all too painfully in recent years.  And it is noteworthy that many who did not put off saving for retirement have found themselves, nevertheless, woefully under resourced at the planned-for end of their working lives, thanks to Enron, 401-K collapses, and pension defaults.  A diminishing sense of investment efficacy, along with a tendency to put off preparations, may be at work in the decline in savings, and in saving.

In his section on political procrastination, Dr. Steel reports some horrifying projections of what begins to read like an ecological apocalypse.  By the year 2050, an anticipated three-degree increase in temperature is expected to have a "mutilating" effect on the planet.
No matter what country you are in, there won't be any place that will truly benefit from this change.  Entire ecosystems, like the Amazon rainforest, are expected to collapse, about a third of all animals and plants will become extinct, and billions of famine refugees will fight to determine who starves to death first.

In the context of this urgent issue, the likelihood that our political institutions will continue to drag their feet leaves little room for hope.

But Dr. Steel finds some, in, oddly, bicameralism--which is intended to force legislatures to act more deliberately, and theoretically, less impulsively in the face of serious issues having long-term ramifications; in the growing policy role of behavioral economics; and in Obama's rhetoric about our need "to confront problems, not to pass them on to future presidents and future generations."  And yet, similar language, which urges us to stop "kicking the can [of public debt] down the road" to our children, is being used in my state to justify actions that will further enrich the privileged and increase the suffering of the vulnerable.

The stops on this week's post-industrial tour added to last week's panorama of personal devastation bring two things to mind.  One is the happy little industry of Katrina tours still extant in my second home of New Orleans.  The other is a quote from Winston Churchill, which has rearranged itself in my head thusly:

We shall go on to the end; we shall [procrastinate] in France,
we shall [procrastinate] on the seas and oceans,
we shall [procrastinate] with growing [consequences] and growing [slothfulness] in the air. . . .
we shall [procrastinate] on_ the beaches,
we shall [procrastinate] on the landing grounds,
we shall [procrastinate] in the fields and in the streets,
we shall [procrastinate] in the hills;
we shall never [catch up].

I am looking forward to Dr. Steel's next chapter, on "Optimizing Optimism," in which he promises to begin showing us the way out of the morass he has so persuasively depicted.    

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