There have been notable procrastinators through the ages. Augustine of Hippo, for example, was a prominent 5th Century theologian who produced work that influenced theology and philosophy forever, but he is remembered for the disarming, “Give me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
Leonardo da Vinci, too, was known for the genius and ambition of his work, but completion and delivery could be slow. As author Andrew Santella1 relates in his recently published, Soon, Leonardo produced two paintings titled The Virgin of the Rocks. One was promised completion in seven months but took a quarter of a century to finish. Santella adds Charles Darwin to the pantheon of procrastinators as well, noting Darwin’s reluctance to publish the decades of meticulous, brilliant observation that led to The Origin of Species.
No need for us, though, to look so long ago or so far afield. In a doc’s workday, completing dictations, chart summaries, work reports and telephone call-backs are all likely to find us dillydallying. So, too, do we put off difficult conversations, tax instalments, RRSP contributions, reapplication for privileges, etc., knowing full well that our delay will cause us discomfort and even pain that could have been avoided.
This may impact clinical care, even if it’s not always obvious. For a time, I assisted a surgeon who I thought might be challenged to ever truly complete an operation. The work involved vascular anastomoses – which generally went well – except that Dr. X. would stop, inevitably and midstream as it were, to ponder a suture line and its acceptability. Most times, Dr. X. would take down the anastomosis and redo it. From my countervailing point of view, the rework was not an improvement and would have been best left alone.
Why can’t we get on with things?
As I’ve mentioned, at one time our delay was considered a moral failing, a condition the Greeks called akrasia, or lack of self-control. Recent work has been done by Roy Baumeister2 and others may offer relief, since it would seem that our willpower is like a muscle that can be improved through exercise.
There are, though, competing arguments.
Some say we are poor at dealing with time. Faced with an immediate reward – say $100, right now – most of us will take the bounty over a promise of $110 three months from now. We favor immediate reward over delayed gratification, even when this would make perfect sense on economic grounds, a phenomenon known as hyperbolic discounting.
Freud felt we put things off because of death anxiety, sensing life’s ultimate deadline. More recent analysts argue that we defer things because we are all fractious composites. Our divided selves may be at odds with each other, and the self that ponied up to a task may lose sway when push comes to shove.
Yet our tendency to put things off is so pervasive, so ubiquitous as part of the human condition, that other interpretations are possible. Perhaps we defer things because at core we’re wondering, given our complicated, busy lives, whether the next chore (and the one after that, and so on) is really worth doing at all.
Somehow these explanations don’t explain all our proclivities to put things off. I recall the comic’s excuse: “The devil made me do it!” Turned on its head, this becomes: “The devil made me not do it!” This may come closer to the truth, or perhaps, as Jones and Berglas3 reason, we all “have a need for certain kinds of ambiguity to allow room for self-sustaining and self-embellishing fantasies.”
Typical garden-variety procrastination seems similar to writer’s block. Both represent blocked function, but the extent to which writers will go to try and move on is an intriguing difference. Honoré de Balzac, for instance, found he required countless cups of coffee to keep his creative juices flowing, even munching on coffee grounds. Edith Sitwell was said to lie for a time in an open coffin to prepare to write. Friedrich Schiller dipped his feet in ice water and needed the smell of rotten apples nearby. Victor Hugo had a servant lock him in a room without his clothes so that he had no recourse but to write.
As well, authors’ historic use of extrinsic substances – particularly psychoactive drugs and alcohol – to attempt to jumpstart their creativity is well known. Many professional writers find these tricks don’t work or can’t be counted on, and, not wanting to lead such anxious, capricious lives, they have developed work and time management habits that are more reliable. If there is a lesson procrastinators can take away from writer’s block, it may be that the best alternative is work rather than waiting.