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Why procrastination might sometimes be the best solution these days

Posted on December 1, 2016 by Fresh Workspace

Our need to put off things when we can be doing something we prefer is hardwired into us. We need to keep pace with the demand s of the modern world but we also need to remember what works and is good for us sometimes is to ignore the beat of the clock. Procrastination gets something of a bad rap these days. And, because it’s linked to psychological factors such as the need to do something we deem pleasurable to something we don’t, it’s becoming more of a problem as we surround ourselves with more and more distractions. “Why”, we might ask ourselves, “should we do that job right now when instead we could be taking the dog for a walk in the sunshine, watching just one more episode of Game of Thrones or something on Netflix, making ourselves one more cup of coffee, daydreaming, checking email and text messages or inviting a digital affirmation of our wisdom or hilarity from somebody on social media?”

This is the golden age of procrastination according to Dr Piers Steel the author of a book a book called The Procrastination Equation. Nearly everybody (around 95 percent) procrastinates at some time or other. One in four people describe themselves as chronic procrastinators and over half the population would describe themselves as frequent. In the last 40 years there’s been about a 300-400 percent growth in what he considers chronic procrastination. It’s no coincidence that this increase is linked to the digitisation of the world. Dr Steel’s book offers some guidance on how to overcome procrastination but there’s also – obviously and ironically – an app for that too.

Procrastination may be endemic but it’s nothing new and nor is it always a bad thing. In September, an analysis of workplace habits carried out by office supplies firm Viking found that the biggest causes of worker procrastination are internal problems within an organisation, and that restricting social media usage could make employees less productive. The survey of over 1,500 office workers claims that almost half of workers (48 percent) procrastinate while waiting for other people’s work to be completed and 40 percent procrastinated in order to take a break from work and reduce their stress levels. The study also claims that people who work in an office experience more stress then those who work from home, which the study concludes is because working from home allows employees to take breaks more frequently. Although the Flexible Working Regulations introduced in the UK in 2014 suggests we’re working towards a more lenient workplace, survey findings suggest that in-office cultures are still struggling to find their footing when balancing work and relaxation.

The most frequently visited sites while at work were Facebook (57 percent), BBC News (36 percent) and Twitter (30 percent), which indicates that workers use procrastination time to stay informed with current news. Facebook introduced its ‘trending’ news section on user profiles in 2014, while Twitter launched ‘Moments’ in 2015 for users to quickly find prominent news stories.

Almost half (48 percent) of people want their office social media policy to change. When asked how they’d feel if their company banned social media, the majority of respondents (43 percent) said their day would be worse, with 29 percent saying it would, in fact, be less productive. Workers also seem to be taking their time into their own hands, with 61 percent of people not worrying if they are caught on social media while at work.

Gemma Terrar, European HR Business Partner at Viking, weighed in on the potential benefits that controlled breaks can have in a workplace: “If an employee is struggling with their work, a quick break can help them take a step back and think about their situation in a new light. Rather than trying to press on through a challenging task, doing something that relaxes them or lightens their mood can help a worker stay productive in the long-run. Each company is different, but many workplaces are becoming more open to a relaxed atmosphere that encourages taking breaks when necessary. Ultimately, companies want their employees to work to their full potential, so they should consider break and social media policies that balance the downtime and productivity of a workforce.”

Although it’s great to have the research to back this up, we’ve always known how creative thoughts often come unbidden when our minds are doing something else. There is also something called the Zeigarnik effect, based on the work of a researcher and psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik which states that people remember uncompleted or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. That has obvious implications for learning because it suggests that taking a break during a period of study will help you to remember things better.

There’s a lot to be said for not being slaves to the clock and the screen. Ironically, the way we measure time has its roots in a famous instance of daydreaming. The story goes that in 1583 a young student at the University of Pisa called Galileo Galilei was daydreaming in the pews while his fellow students were dutifully reciting their prayers. He noticed that one of the altar lamps was swaying back and forth and even as its energy dissipated, the arc of each swing slowed so that each took the same amount of time as the last, measured against his own pulse.

He packed the idea away and returned to it later in life when he built a pendulum to test whether he was right in concluding that what determines the time taken for it to swing is solely its length. What he found was that “the marvellous property of the pendulum is that it makes all its vibrations, large or small, in equal time.”

This was groundbreaking stuff for the period. Mechanical clocks existed but had to be reset daily by checking them against a sundial. This was OK for the time, when deadlines and timekeeping were not dependent on seconds, but the idea had been sown that it was possible to keep time mechanically with almost perfect precision.

Timekeeping only became a preoccupation during the Industrial Revolution when it became important for the new generation of trains to run on time and to measure the working hours and productivity of the workforce. It’s fair to say that there began the co-dependent relationship between timekeeping and industrialised work. One was not possible without the other. Before the 18th Century there was no real idea of the working day and hourly or daily pay. It was all about tasks.

Our whole attitude to time began to change and by the age of the Victorians had hardened into what we essentially still perceive. Charles Dickens described it in Hard Times as that “deadly statistical clock which measured every second with a beat like a rap upon a coffin lid.”

There is one way in which the modern world is very different however. We now measure computing power against time, by how many operations a processor can perform in a set period. We also know, thanks to Moore’s Law that this power doubles approximately every 18 months and has been doing so for half a century.

The problem is that this is the new benchmark we have set ourselves for our own lives. The author Charles Handy encapsulated the thinking behind it twenty or so years ago when he described it as half the people doing twice the work in half the time. That remains the goal but it is one with constantly moving goal posts and we would do well to remember that sometimes we need to succumb to our baser instincts and human needs and those include the desire to stare, dream, pause and put things off.