The much-delayed war on procrastination

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Author David Nicholls revealed that he spent two years writing his new book using an anti-procrastination app. Is procrastination a bigger problem than ever?

Often it's so innocent. It might even be relevant initially. A quick Wikipedia fact-check, perhaps.

But before long you've been sucked into the wormhole. Link after link, page after page. When you finally snap out of it you've lost a precious hour and you're reading about the intricacies of 16th Century Prussian politics.

If this sounds familiar, you're not alone.

"We're really entering the golden age of procrastination," says Dr Piers Steel, who has conducted surveys and written The Procrastination Equation.

"One in four [people] would describe themselves as a chronic procrastinator, [while] over half the population would describe themselves as frequent," he says.

"In the last 40 years there's been about a 300-400% growth in chronic procrastination," which is when it becomes particularly self-defeating, Steel explains.

UK smartphone users check their phone 221 times a day on average, a recent survey found. Checking emails and social media cost 36% of respondents more than an hour each day in productivity, another survey found.

But whether chronic or casual, procrastination is more than merely delaying a task. It's doing so despite expecting to be worse off, prioritising the short-term reward, explains Bill Knaus, author of The Procrastination Handbook.

And a whole industry has grown around trying to combat these irrational impulses, from self-help books and online courses to business efficiency experts - and more recently the explosion of anti-procrastination apps.

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Image caption,
Author David Nicholls used an anti-procrastination app

Nicholls, while writing his follow-up to One Day, used a particularly brutal app, Write or Die. Ponder too long over your next word and an ominous red glow descends over the page. Then your text disappears in haphazard fashion: This is what a sntnc lks lk ftr prcrstntng fr 20 scnds.

Nicholls likened it to "writing with a gun to my head". Unsurprisingly he didn't produce his best work and decided that two years and 32,000 words of work were to be discarded.

But there's a slew of less intimidating apps.

There's Procrastor, Procrastination Hack, Stop Procrastinating, Finish and even Yelling Mom, which tries to regain your attention through various alert noises - although not one of a nagging mother. Others focus on more efficient goal-setting.

Internet-restricting apps Freedom and SelfControl were even given specific acknowledgement in author Zadie Smith's book NW.

Freedom, which has been downloaded 1.1 million times, cuts you off from the internet entirely. "Freedom enforces freedom," it proclaims, tapping into the paradoxical idea that too much freedom can be a trap.

Others apps let you block individual websites, particularly social media, but all aim to cut off the main avenues of distraction.

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Writers, freelancers and students - who typically work alone - are the obvious targets. A 2012 research paper found that 80% of US students found procrastination to be a problem.

But anyone with a computer or smartphone is equally susceptible. And that's a lot of people.

How many times a day do people check their email unnecessarily, asks time management expert Rosie Gray, of Mosaic Learning.

Or Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Lolcat memes.

"When I've got something to do that's difficult," Gray adds, "it's amazing how house proud I suddenly become."

Of course procrastination itself is not new.

French writer Victor Hugo apparently used to take off all his clothes and have them hidden by his valet so that he couldn't leave the house.

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Image caption,
Victor Hugo wrote in the nude to avoid procrastinating

Ancient Greek orator Demosthenes used to shave one side of his head so he'd remain indoors practising speeches rather than go outside and be ridiculed.

"There are Egyptian hieroglyphs purely about procrastination," adds Steel.

It's as ancient as human existence, says Knaus.

At least some pre-historic cave doodles were probably painted while skinning a mammoth was still top of the "to-do" list.

Procrastination is seen in animals like rats or monkeys, says Steel. "It's pretty much built into our core architecture," he says. "We're not going to evolve ourselves out of it anytime soon."

But while procrastination may be ingrained, that doesn't mean that it's stable.

"You can make it worse with the right environment," Steel says, "and we've been constructing precisely such an environment fastidiously over the last 50 years - I'd even say 100 - but really getting going in the last 20.

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"We've increased our proximity to temptation." Candy Crush is only ever a button away, he notes.

"We're constantly bombarded by stimuli," says Anna Abramowski, a counselling psychology trainee at London's City University, whether it's computers, tablets, smartphones, TV - and now even smart watches.

"It's an environment designed to be motivationally toxic," Steel says.

But competing with this bleak vision has been increasing awareness of the negative effects of procrastination - from business inefficiencies to health problems.

And there's been a backlash against putting things off.

Wider concern about procrastination only really started during the industrial revolution in the 18th Century, suggests Abramowski, when productivity became linked to an individual's value.

Businesses have a clear incentive to limit time-wasting. Studies on time management have flourished since the 1960s, says Knaus. "Corporations were delighted with having people work smarter without working harder," he says.

Hamlet - the great procrastinator

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Image caption,
David Tennant as Hamlet

Procrastination lies at the heart of Shakespeare's most famous play. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, called upon by the ghost of his dead father to avenge his death, spends the best part of four acts putting off the murder of his uncle, the usurper Claudius.

At times, Hamlet is filled with self-loathing by his procrastion: "This is most brave, That I, the son of a dear father murder'd, Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words, And fall a-cursing, like a very drab, A scullion!"

On other occasions, such as in the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, he is philosophical: "Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; And thus the native hue of resolution Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, And enterprises of great pith and moment With this regard their currents turn awry."

As to why Hamlet puts off his inevitable destiny, it remains unclear - but his procrastination has been the subject of debate among Shakespearean scholars ever since.

Although the hyper-efficient workforce desired by executives didn't quite materialise, Knaus adds, structure is usually an antidote for procrastination.

Some companies pre-empt procrastination by blocking access to sites like Facebook.

Businesses are learning to adapt to their workers' distractions, says Gray. People are not meant to work for three or four hours straight, she says, advising 45 minutes of work and then a five minute break.

Scientists at Hiroshima University recently claimed that optimal productivity comes from 52 minutes of work and a 17-minute break.

Others argue that procrastination can be good.

"Individuals who actively procrastinate display a certain level of self-reliance, autonomy and self-confidence," says Abramowski, "because they are aware of the risk of subjecting themselves to last-minute pressures and still consciously decide to do so."

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It's not as if the internet should be demonised. It can even be a form of "positive procrastination", she adds, stimulating creativity and innovation.

There's also a correlation between the growth of procrastination literature and people increasingly identifying it as a problem.

"I wouldn't say we do it more than we ever have but we talk about it a lot more," says Gray.

In the 1970s Knaus struggled to find a publisher for his book Overcoming Procrastination, one of the first of its kind. Now the word "procrastination" brings up nearly 1,500 books on Amazon.

Just as the internet is not the only source of distraction, there are multiple suggested causes of procrastination - including perfectionism, fear of failure, fatigue, frustration, rebellion, or complexity of the task at hand.

So anti-procrastination apps are naturally limited in what they can achieve. And they're unlikely to help too much when your distractions are not computer-based.

"These apps might be used as a short-term solution," says Abramowski, "but they do not tap psychologically into the underlining roadblocks preventing that person from tackling the task at hand in the first place."

The irony is that they'll be far more useful for moderate procrastinators than extreme ones, says Knaus, because persistent procrastinators will delay even using them.

More from the Magazine

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I am a fully paid-up member of the hardcore procrastinators' gang. I never open bank statements, I flee from urgent emails, I haven't filed a tax return for four years and I cannot write anything (although journalism is my living) until the deadline's savaging my ankles.

Others question whether the apps are themselves a distraction from developing self-discipline.

"Some would say willpower is more like a muscle," accepts Steel, "the more you use it the stronger it gets." And we don't want a future where robots become our decision-making minders, he adds.

But as long as procrastination is not being overcome on its own then the apps serve a purpose, he contends. "From finances to just wellbeing and health, the less we procrastinate, the better off we become."

"If we could just give ourselves the gift of a little extra time, our lives would be disproportionately benefited."

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