I spoke to Andrew Santella, author of Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me, about why we procrastinate, how technology has made us procrastinate more, what he learned about the topic from his interviews, how leaders can prevent procrastination and his best career advice.
Santella has written for such publications as GQ, the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and the Atlantic.com. He is the author of about sixty nonfiction books for kids, most on topics in American history. He is also managing editor of Elmhurst College’s Prospect Magazine.
Dan Schawbel: Why is there a university tendency to procrastinate? Is procrastination always a bad thing?
Andrew Santella: It’s natural to procrastinate because it’s natural to sometimes be ambivalent and anxious. When I procrastinate it’s often because I’m faced with a challenge I’m too fearful to act on. Or I have a choice to make, but I’m torn between competing impulses. One of the things I learned working on the book was that some birds engage in a similar kind of procrastination. Encountering a rival and given the choice to fight or to flee, a bird might just stand there and peck at the ground instead. That’s procrastination: We all sometimes peck at the ground instead of taking some decisive action. Obviously, too much of that kind of task-avoidance can be a problem for chronic procrastinators. But procrastination also offers an illusion of control as we navigate our daily course of obligations and less-than-perfect options. Which may explain why some wildly productive people also turn out to be procrastinators.
Schawbel: Has technology made us procrastinate more? If so, what can we do about it?
Santella: If you consider how often procrastination pops up in our historical record and in our literature, it’s hard to blame the habit entirely on Twitter or Snapchat. St. Augustine was a procrastinator, and so was Hamlet. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod and the 18th century essayist Samuel Johnson both wrote about the dangers of the habit. None of them were on Facebook. But our access to information technology has unquestionably made it easier to waste time. If you find yourself using screens and technology to avoid tasks, I would try to resist the temptation to blame your devices. Instead, ask what it is about your obligations that makes you want to put them off.
Schawbel: What did you learn about procrastination from your conversations with psychologists, philosophers and priests?
Santella: I had not fully appreciated how much research and scholarship was being done on procrastination, and in how many different disciplines–economics and psychology, biology and neuroscience, education and philosophy. There is an impressive and growing academic literature on procrastination that is continually offering new insights into why we put things off. For example, some research indicates the habit is related to impulsiveness, and like impulsiveness, may be inheritable. The thing about all this research is that it’s kind of ironic that procrastination would keep so many people so very busy.
Schawbel: How can leaders stay focused and spend less time procrastinating?
Santella: Eliminating distractions is a huge concern now, which is why there are so many apps and life hacks available to address that. But that’s nothing new. The French novelist Victor Hugo is said to have kept his mind on his work by removing his clothes and stashing them away, thus eliminating any temptation to leave the office until his writing was done. I don’t think that’s a very practical solution for the modern workplace, though. What makes most sense for me is to be attentive to my procrastination. I try to ask myself why I’m procrastinating: What is it about the task I’m putting off that is so onerous or scary or dull? My procrastination may be trying to tell me something about the way I’m living.
Schawbel: What are your top three pieces of career advice?
- Be patient. Following your own path may take longer than doing what everyone else thinks you should do. But procrastinators know that delay sometimes pays off.
- Try to solve problems for the people you work with, instead of creating problems.
- Be skeptical of any career advice you get, especially if comes from an author promoting a new book. (Look for my new book, Soon, wherever books are sold!!!!)