While procrastination, like most human behaviors, is certainly nothing new, there is something seemingly “modern” about it. In a fast-paced and complex society in which people are doing far more than the bare minimum to get by, holding off on our various responsibilities definitely stands out: there are tests to study for, jobs to work, errands to run, things to pay, and so on.
People have always been busy of course, as day-to-day survival obviously takes work. But nowadays we’re bombarded with a lot more than gathering food or firewood. Modern civilization is complex, and even recreational and leisurely activities are daunting in their variety and sense of necessity.
To be sure, I’m not lamenting the fact that we have more opportunities than ever for entertainment, comfort, and the like — for the most part, that’s a good thing. Nor am I suggesting that we go back to the seemingly simpler times of tribal, hunter-gatherer existence. It’s just that every era brings with it new challenges and concerns, and every progressive development, no matter how positive in many respects, has certain caveats.
For example, there’s been much discussion about the so-called “tyranny of choice,” in which our minds our overwhelmed by the sheer amount of options and stimuli available, and subsequently we become more tired, indecisive, stressed out, and even depressed.
But to go back to the original point, what does this have to do with procrastination? Well, all these demands have raised the bar of what society expects from us, such that (in America at least) a strong work ethic is seen as a paramount quality. One’s social and personal worth is dependent on one’s socioeconomic status, and that in turn is still widely seen as deriving from hard work and personal responsibility. Those who are regarded as lazy procrastinators are anticipated to be failures in life; conversely, “failures” — e.g. those who are poor or fail to conform to the standards of our materialistic consumer society — have their shortcomings attributed to laziness.
Now, setting aside the complex and systemic reasons why hard work no longer seems to promote upward mobility like it once did, something needs to be set straight: procrastination is not laziness, and the strong desire to put a pause on life and relax is not evidence of self-entitlement, poor work ethic, or some sort of moral decay. There are good reasons to be “lazy” and deep psychological and social motivations that need to be considered…starting with understanding the distinction between procrastination and laziness.
David Cain of Thought Catalog wrote an excellent piece that explains this phenomenon perfectly. While I encourage you to read the article in its entirety, the following excerpt is what stood out most for me:
It turns out procrastination is not typically a function of laziness, apathy or work ethic as it is often regarded to be. It’s a neurotic self-defense behavior that develops to protect a person’s sense of self-worth.
You see, procrastinators tend to be people who have, for whatever reason, developed to perceive an unusually strong association between their performance and their value as a person. This makes failure or criticism disproportionately painful, which leads naturally to hesitancy when it comes to the prospect of doing anything that reflects their ability — which is pretty much everything.
But in real life, you can’t avoid doing things. We have to earn a living, do our taxes, have difficult conversations sometimes. Human life requires confronting uncertainty and risk, so pressure mounts. Procrastination gives a person a temporary hit of relief from this pressure of “having to do” things, which is a self-rewarding behavior. So it continues and becomes the normal way to respond to these pressures.
Certainly, the above reasons don’t apply to every case, nor should we excuse genuine laziness. There are many other theories and explanations regarding the psychology origins of procrastination But this is something to consider, and it definitely applies to a large number of people (if not everyone at some point).
Ultimately, the difference between laziness and procrastination seems to come down to the motivations and thought processes that guide the former: procrastinators tend to be artists, writers, or others who feel they have better things to do with their time — things that, unfortunately, don’t provide an income and/or may not be respectable. The same reasoning may apply to, say, athletes or the vocationally-inclined, who have no interest in academic pursuits — in grades, tests, and industrial-style education — but who excel at doing what they love, even if it’s central to their overall curriculum (if measured at all).
For those who fear the next step — particularly those with anxiety — procrastination can be their only respite. In this fast-paced world, I can see the temptation for people to, in essence, put a pause on life. Society has changed so much and so quickly, even within the short lifetimes of the young. It can be overwhelming to conform to these social norms that nobody individually seems to like or choose, yet everyone feels pressured to follow (this in turn leads to a whole other sociological tangent about the nature of society and such).
I’m anticipating that people will react to skepticism at this argument, namely that it gives an excuse to laziness. But I think it’s important to see the distinction as far as the reasons, and to consider what the implications are.
There is a lot of evidence that sleeplessness, stress, and depression are growing problems in our society; that young people, especially, are in for a raw deal as far as longer work hours, lower pay, and higher costs of living; and that people with relatively more idle times on their hands are starting to reach existential crises much earlier in life (anecdotally-speaking, I’ve seen a number of teenagers already begin questioning the purpose of their lives, acknowledge the primacy of death, and muse about other hard “adult” concerns — although I’m told this may not be anything new, just more noticeable).
With these trends, one has to wonder whether procrastination will become some sort of widespread characteristic of modern society. Will the stresses and pressures of civilization lead more and of us to shut down, pursue escapism, and otherwise come into conflict with the wider world around us? What do you think?
I’d weigh in further but, ironically, I’m procrastinating at work as we speak by writing this post…