I spoke to Andrew Santella, the author of Soon: An overdue story of procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to you and mewhy we’re procrastinating, how technology is making us procrastinating more, what he learned from his interviews on the subject, how executives can prevent procrastination and his best career tips.
Santella has written for publications such as GQ, the New York Times Book Review, Slate, and Atlantic.com. He is the author of about sixty children’s non-fiction books, most on American history topics. He is also the executive editor of Prospect Magazine at Elmhurst College.
Dan Schawbel: Why is there a tendency to procrastinate in universities? Is procrastination always a bad thing?
Andreas Santella: It is natural to hesitate because it is natural to be ambivalent and fearful at times. When I procrastinate, it is often because I am faced with a challenge that I am too fearful to act on. Or I have a choice to make, but I am torn between competing impulses. One of the things I learned while working on the book was that some birds practice a similar kind of procrastination. When a bird encounters a rival and has a choice of fighting or fleeing, a bird could just stand there and peck the ground instead. This is procrastination: we all peck at the ground sometimes instead of acting decisively. Obviously, too much of this type of avoidance can be a problem for chronic procrastinators. But procrastination also offers an illusion of control as we manage our daily commitments and imperfect options. Which might explain why some wildly productive people also turn out to be procrastinators.
Shabbles: Has technology put us off longer? If so, what can we do about it?
Santella: Given how often procrastination shows up in our historical records and literature, it’s hard to push the habit solely on Twitter or Snapchat. St. Augustine was a procrastinator, and so was Hamlet. The ancient Greek poet Hesiod and 18th century essayist Samuel Johnson both wrote about the dangers of habit. None of them were on Facebook. But our access to information technology has undoubtedly made it easier to waste time. If you’re using screens and technology to avoid chores, I’d try to resist the temptation to blame your devices. Instead, ask what about your commitments makes you want to put them off.
Shabbles: What have you learned about procrastination from your conversations with psychologists, philosophers and priests?
Santella: I hadn’t quite understood how much research and research there was on procrastination and in how many different disciplines – economics and psychology, biology and neuroscience, education and philosophy. There is an impressive and growing scientific literature on the subject of procrastination that is constantly providing new insights into why we are procrastinating. For example, some research suggests that the habit is related to impulsivity and how impulsivity can be hereditary. The thing with all of this research is that it’s kind of ironic that procrastinating would keep so many people so busy.
Shabbles: 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 out there to fix this. But that’s nothing new. French writer Victor Hugo reportedly kept his mind on his work by taking off his clothes and stowing it away, eliminating any temptation to leave the office until his writing was finished. For the modern workplace, however, I don’t think that’s a very practical solution. It makes the most sense for me to be aware of my procrastination. I try to ask myself why I hesitate: what is it about the task I am putting off so arduous or scary or boring? My procrastination might be trying to tell me about my way of life.
Shabbles: What are your three top career tips?
- Be patient. It can take longer to follow your own path than doing what everyone else thinks you should be doing. But procrastinators know that delays sometimes pay off.
- Try to solve problems for the people you work with rather than creating problems.
- Be skeptical of any career advice you get, especially if it’s from an author promoting a new book. (Look for my new book Soon Wherever Books Sell !!!!)