Why Do We Procrastinate When We Don't Really Want To?

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In this week's issue of The New Yorker, James Surowiecki reviews The Thief of Time, a volume of essays that attempt to unravel the strange allure of procrastination. Often, Surowiecki explains, when we put off work to do something else, we don't actually enjoy the thing we're doing instead. And we know that lollygagging will only make our lives harder in the long run. So why do we do it? Surowiecki calls this "the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy."

A host of possible explanations exist, from the psychological to the philosophical. Surowiecki relates the theory of multiple selves wrestling for control: "one that wants to work, one that wants to watch television, and so on." We can get our work done by striking a bargain with our less industrious side: knuckle down now, goof off later. Or, Surowiecki says, we can rely on "external tools and techniques to help the parts of our selves that want to work"--tools like deadlines and bets with friends, which people make "so that if they don't deliver on their promise it'll cost them money."

Surowiecki contends that procrastination is a real and complicated affliction and might even be thought of as "the quintessential modern problem." The Wire would tend to agree. This post took forever to write.

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