When I was young I was given this pearl of wisdom by a relative: As you go through life, dear boy, do exactly what you want to do. You can always find a justification later. It is a good pearl, and it has lasted this long. I suspect many of our universities too have uncles who have given them similar advice. A lot of research, therefore, is in areas where justifications and scientific proof make our lives happier.
In the field of procrastination, for example. But we will come to that later. Already research has shown that it is better to receive than to give, that lazy people are healthier and too much exercise is not good. Since these are such agreeable findings, they are popular, and universities are assured of funds for the foreseeable future.
And so to procrastination. Just hang on, let me first send a message accepting an invitation to a wedding. Then I have to replace a book in the shelf, check the timing of the football match and feed the cat. Well, procrastination. According to the New York Times, when there are a number of tasks to be accomplished, our brains work against us because of something called the “urgency effect”. Our brains prioritise immediate satisfaction over long-term rewards (I am sure all of us knew that). This means, we are more likely to perform smaller tasks with a deadline than important tasks that have no immediate deadline.
Thus, I write this column with one minute to go for the deadline while that haircut I have been planning to have for the last two weeks is ignored. I will respond immediately to a mail that can wait, but drive my publisher up the wall by missing yet another deadline to submit my manuscript.
But – and here’s the beauty of the whole thing – researchers tell us that it ain’t our fault. That must be the four most beautiful words in that exact sequence in the English language. Children crave to hear it from parents, murderers would kill to hear it from their victims, and divorced couples from one another.
We are hard wired that way. To pull me up for missing a deadline, therefore, is like punishing a dog for not keeping its tail straight.
But procrastination has its uses, something it is seldom given credit for. It is only by putting off until tomorrow what you could do today that you realise how many of the things you wanted to do today are not worth doing at all. You might feel like writing a letter urgently today, but by tomorrow it is out of your mind. What a waste of time had you written in time!