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(Rachael Parsons/Rachael Parsons For The Globe and Mail.)
(Rachael Parsons/Rachael Parsons For The Globe and Mail.)

Procrastinators: You'll read this later Add to ...

Getting started is the hard part.

That wasn't so bad. Yet inexplicably and invariably, every part of my being wants to tickle the cats, consider the emptiness of my coffee cup, suss out the latest baseball trade rumours, contemplate the leftovers in the fridge, scan the spines of unread books on the bookshelf, check the fridge one last time.

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"Procrastinators respond well to daily deadlines," says Piers Steel, reformed time-waster, author of The Procrastination Equation and a University of Calgary expert on putting things off who knows me better than I know myself.

I have just promised my annoyingly intrusive boss that he will have my work by the end of the day. If he didn't break into my beautiful train of thought with his e-mail demands, and if I didn't make a promise that I now have to keep, and if we weren't both trapped by a business model that uses the deadline threats of disappearing hours to subdue our impulsive brains - well, the cats would rule and I'm not sure anything would ever get done.

Procrastination is my theme and my affliction. Damn it, it might even be my pleasure, though I'm at a loss to explain the appeal of news updates on Heathrow's inability to cope with snow.

"The brain really finds enticing those activities where the rewards are given in the short term," Prof. Steel says. Which would almost make sense if the rewards of procrastination really felt like the great biblical temptations and not like a faint echo of nothingness.

If I thought New Year's resolutions had any power at all, I'd happily swear off my inability to estimate how soon tomorrow becomes today.

And then I'd pick up the $5,000 the government has been holding on to for 10 years until I just fill out some paperwork, and talk to a contractor about fixing the crumbling garage and go to the gym today - oops, too late now, make that tomorrow.

But wait, what else did Prof. Steel say while I was gabbing with him about a world designed to make us all goof off with Solitaire or Minesweepers?

"Procrastinators can do really well in certain environments: They have more energy in the crunch, they have more ability to focus than most people."

That's the good news, the official validation of a lunatic strategy that turns last-minute desperation into improvised art. People who put things off know things somehow get done. Once in the zone, they experience an elation that surely eludes the obedient time-servers.

So where's the motivation for playing by the rules, for avoiding that sick feeling of despair when the clock doesn't start ticking until it's sudden-death overtime?

"The usual argument for procrastination," Prof. Steel says, "is that if you got an early start on things, you'd do worse. Essentially you're saying that you'd harm your performance by doing extra work. Well, that's just a clumsy line."

He's right, of course. No rational person would ever think less time meant higher quality: We set traps for ourselves that we deliberately fall into, again and again. Life is an endless repeat of unforeseen acts of self-destruction and dramatic last-second rescues. We procrastinators seem to need to be the villains and the victims and the heroes of our own cliffhanger narratives.

But surely you know what I'm talking about: Since an estimated 90 per cent of us are admitted procrastinators - irrational delay appears to be the human condition.

Less healthy, less wealthy and less wise

Carpe diem - even the diligent Romans needed motivational therapy. And wasn't it the patron saint of procrastinators, Augustine of Hippo, who said, "Give me chastity and self-control - but not yet"? Just by equating self-control with chastity, he makes the absence of control seem human, all too human.

But let's not get too carried away. The poet Coleridge, Prof. Steel notes, never opened his mail and couldn't be trusted to show up at meetings, yet is now celebrated for writing a work ( Kubla Khan) he didn't finish. He was also moody, an opium addict, financially troubled and inept at relationships.

Maybe he focused better than other people and truly experienced the procrastinator's bursts of creative energy. But with the highs come the lows: "Chronic procrastinators tend to be significantly less happy people," Prof. Steel says. "They also tend to be less wealthy and less healthy - doctors are very good at dealing with illness, but there's not a lot they can do if you don't get in for early treatment or won't comply with your treatment regimen."

And in a wider world that can't figure out its relationship with time - that finds it easier to focus on the immediacy of celebrity gossip than concepts like retirement planning, transit infrastructure and climate change - putting things off can have dire social consequences.

We know that, and yet we don't know it: The perversity of that position is what makes procrastinators so intriguing.

"With procrastination, you actually undermine things you claim to value and prioritize," notes University of Utah philosophy professor Chrisoula Andreou, co-author of a wide-ranging essay collection titled The Thief of Time. "The delay is irrational, it's completely voluntary, and usually you know in advance that there's a self-defeating aspect to it. So philosophically it's interesting."

Interesting, not to say bizarre. And yet this behaviour is the norm for many people, not least the students Prof. Andreou cites who are given the choice of handing in term papers whenever they please or turning them in according to fixed deadlines that impose penalties for lateness - and take the penalty option.



This might sound a lot like self-help, but it is just as much a way of seeing the world: If environmental degradation is a slippery slope of small procrastinations, then you craft regulatory solutions where success is tied to specific plans rather than the vague idealization of better air quality.

But surely, you say, I don't need these mental tricks to get things done. And you'd be wrong, according to Prof. Steel.

"When we believe we have an unlimited amount of self-control, we're actually more likely to fail. Expecting us to have all the virtues we need within ourselves is unreasonable. Better to accept that we're flawed, and then design aspects of the world to cue us to better behaviours."

Puritanical Christians pining for the self-control that eluded Augustine came up with monastic rules to escape temptation and defeat procrastination. The same human flaws endure, apparently.

But now we're urged to marry perfectionists who will give our lives order, to put the TV behind closed cabinet doors, to embrace the liberated paternalism of automatic-deduction pension plans, to demand negative-option organ donation so we won't keep putting off our consent, to cut out every Internet shortcut and to defy the boss's shortsighted demands for instant response by turning off our e-mail notifier. ("This will increase productivity in most people by 10 per cent a day," Prof. Steel says.)

Always assuming that productivity is what we cherish. But since being busily unproductive doesn't turn out to be much fun, maybe a new monasticism of the mind can bring us happiness.

"There are no moral overtones to this," Prof. Steel responds, knowing that self-denial remains a hard sell. "It's just a matter of seeing that short-term pleasures have long-term costs.

"Instead of wasting all your time with these weak and not truly enjoyed temptations, e-mail or Minesweeper or whatever, be productive with your time, get it done quickly and then go out and enjoy some serious revelry."

I'm not sure that's an argument - it sounds a lot more like tough love. But 10 p.m. is looming, my deadline promises have been revealed yet again as lies, and the prospect of a cold ale is getting hard to resist. So why not submit to its beguiling logic of productive self-interest?

If the editors don't buy it, I can always make it better tomorrow.

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