The Evolution of Procrastination and Why It’s Ok (Sometimes)

Is impulsive procrastination a means of survival, a cardinal sin or a sign of creativity? procrastination

The human species exists because we procrastinated

Yep, that’s right. Being slow to act saved us.  One hundred thousand years ago while the Homo erectus were busy venturing across continents and the Neanderthals were too cold to venture out of their caves, us Homo sapiens were engaging in what scientists call “complex planning”.

Complex planning is exactly what it sounds like – complex. It requires us to conceive a future and then determine if a particular action propels us in that direction. Basically, instead of hurling toward a six tonne mammoth with a spear, we took our time, crafted a plan and shot the spear from a safe distance. Impulsive decision making meant death. A more leisured approach meant life.

Since then, human attitude toward procrastination has coincided with the evolution of value systems. Many argue that our attitude toward procrastination is paralleled with the rapid development of human civilization.  

Procrastination is a spoiler of morality

Like any hot topic, procrastination weaved its way into religion and governance. In 800 BC, one of the first recorded Greek poets, Hesiod, said, “Do not put your work off till tomorrow and the day after; a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.”

In 500 BC, the most widely read and influential text of Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita, was crafted to have an even more hostile view of procrastination. It asserts: “Undisciplined, vulgar, stubborn, wicked, malicious, lazy, depressed, and procrastinating; such an agent is called a Tamasika agent.” (Tamariska people are considered so lowly that mortal rebirth is denied to them. Rather, they go to hell.)

procrastinationEven the Jewish and Christian religions had something to say about procrastination. Hillel, one of the most important figures in Jewish his
tory, famously said,
If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? And if not now, when?” Jesus proclaimed that we should reconcile with our adversaries immediately. The Ephesians echoes, “Don’t let the sun go down while you are still angry.”

That’s a lot of disdain for procrastination. Maybe the reason millennials are coined the “least religious generation yet” is the advent of the biggest procrastination facilitator ever, YouTube. If watching “Gangnam Style” on repeat results in lack of self-fulfillment, ruin and denial of another life, why be religious?

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The reason for procrastination determines its connotation

As civilization progressed, the detriment of procrastination lessened to social pressure; an expectation that people close the gap between a good intention and a good deed.

procrastination

Perhaps the most famous procrastinator of all time was Leonardo Da Vinci. He wasted endless time on doodles and unfinished projects. It took him 16 years to complete the Mona Lisa, 13 years to complete The Virgin of the Rocks and he only completed The Last Supper after the Duke of Milan threatened to cut off funds.

Everything about his behavior would compel a modern day psychologist to diagnose him as ADD. But, Leonardo Da Vinci proved that success was possible given procrastination if the reason behind it is creativity. Attempting to speed up a creative only stifles their genius. This is the kind of procrastination that may actually be productive.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the famous eighteenth-century English poet, also left most of his works in fragments, but it wasn’t his impulsive creativity that was the culprit; it was an opium addiction. It was said that “his existence became a never-ending squalor of procrastination, excuses, lies, debts, degradation, failure.”

If creativity is the genius behind procrastination, addiction is the devil behind it. Addiction is obsessing over the news, staring at screens and checking social media. Fixations are hard to combat and require serious mental rewiring.

William Shakespeare too had a lot to say about procrastination. In Measure for Measure, he wrote, “Our doubts are traitors, and make us lose the good we oft might win by fearing to attempt”. In other words, the path to achieving a goal can be cumbersome, scarey and unexplored. But it is in this exploration that we realize the greatest growth.

So who are you?

Da Vinci’s – stay creative. Harness the talent many people wish they had. But remember that the rest of us can only consume what you produce. We can’t crawl inside your head and see the world in the same technicolor you do. We need substance to appreciate your genius.

To all the Coleridge’s (and by the way, we are all a little bit Coleridge) – reject as much unnecessary distraction as you can. Multitasking is not the answer. Accountability and self-regulation is.

And finally, to the Shakespearean inspired procrastinators I ask: Is being perceived as a failure worse than being perceived as a procrastinator?

Remember – “The greatest deception men suffer is from their own opinions”

The concept of procrastination has taken many different forms. In prehistoric times, it was closely correlated to complex planning and thus led to survival. In ancient times, it became a cardinal sin and was paralleled with the most lowly people of society. Today, it is deemed as a failure to complete an objective; a self-regulatory defeat that is less understood than previously thought. But we do know that procrastination is a human impulse. There are logical and illogical reasons to give in to impulsiveness. Fueling creativity or taking a leap into the unknown are good reasons to be impulsive. Instant gratification that has no connection to your long-term goals does not.


“Think of all the years passed by in which you said to yourself “I’ll do it tomorrow,” and how the gods have again and again granted you periods of grace of which you have not availed yourself. It is time to realize that you are a member of the Universe, that you are born of Nature itself, and to know that a limit has been set to your time.” - Marcus Aurelius

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