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Procrastination Through the Ages: A Brief History of Wasting Time

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Thanks to the Internet, never before has procrastination been so ready an option for people in so many different walks of life, even if those of us who work at a computer for a living—writers especially—are most vulnerable. Over the past couple of decades academia has begun to take up procrastination as a worthy subject for research, with studies, analyses, and even a book of philosophical essays published during this time.

We tend to think of procrastination as a very modern phenomenon, and one that has come into its own in the age of html. In some ways, it is a modern phenomenon. But procrastination was also an ancient issue, likely having unfolded with the emergence of a division of labor in which failing to complete a job no longer spelled immediate doom, and with the invention of diversions with which to enact the procrastination—village gossip, say, or a board game, the earliest known of which was played around 3500BC. It’s reasonable to posit that the first bout of procrastination arrived the same day as the first assigned task.

Today, we understand procrastination not only as the putting off of something until tomorrow, but also undertaking other, less important tasks as a means of putting off the more important ones. Procrastination rarely involves doing nothing, but it does involve doing the wrong thing for that moment. It is very different from working on something slowly, or over a long period of time. This explains why someone like Ralph Ellison, who worked on his second novel for several excruciating decades, leaving it unfinished at his death, does not necessarily qualify as a procrastinator—he was working all along on the thing he set out to work on, he just couldn’t get it right.

We don’t have much evidence from ancient time of how people procrastinated—personal confession remained a couple millennia away from becoming the world’s de facto writing genre—but we know that it was happening, and not in isolated cases. More detailed accounts of procrastination—its methods and methods of prevention—would emerge around the time of the Renaissance, as we’ll see in this timeline of procrastination through the ages.

Perses, Brother of Hesiod: Your Standard Slacker (Approximately 700BC)

One of the earliest proclamations against procrastination came from the ancient Greek poet Hesiod. In his poem “Work and Days,” Hesiod addresses his brother, Perses, who has squandered his inheritance and is looking to Hesiod for a re-upping of his funds. Hesiod beseeches Perses to stop avoiding his duties:

Do not put your work off till to-morrow and the day after; for a sluggish worker does not fill his barn, nor one who puts off his work: industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.

Or, as it happened, with begging his brother for more help.

The Roman Senate: Stymied by Fear (1st Century BC)

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In a series of speeches known as the Philippics and meant to convince his allies to take up arms against his rival Mark Antony, the statesman Cicero warned emphatically against the harms of delay, calling procrastination “detestable in the conduct of most affairs,” but even more so when war is so clearly called for, as he believed it was here. Nonetheless, members of the Senate procrastinated out of fear for the consequences, even if they did think it was the right thing to do.

Geoffrey Chaucer: A Quarter Done (14th Century)

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer has the appropriately named Dame Prudence advising Melibee and his friends, “…the goodness you may do this day, do it; and delay it not until the morrow.” Great advice, but Chaucer himself may not have heeded it—Of more than 100 Canterbury Tales he’d planned, only 24 were completed upon his death.

Leonardo da Vinci: Gone Doodling (1452-1519)

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Leonardo completed fewer than 20 of them in his lifetime, spending 16 years on the Mona Lisa alone, and not necessarily because the Mona Lisa was a particularly difficult painting for him. When he should have been painting, Leonardo often took to doodling in his notebooks instead. In form, his procrastination didn’t look much different from yours or mine. His doodles resulted in notebooks filled with inventions such as the helicopter, a metal-rolling mill, and the wheel-lock musket, plus sophisticated designs for bridges, a moveable dyke for Venice, and highly accurate maps that were sometimes centuries ahead of their time. One man's procrastination is another's groundbreaking body of work.

Wen Jia: Watching the Work Pile Up (1501-1583)

The Ming Dynasty poet and painter wrote his Poem of Today as a warning to stave off the accumulation of stresses tomorrow:

Poem of Today
Today follows today, how few todays one has!
If he doesn’t do today, when can it be done!
How many todays one will have for a hundred years of life, what a pity if there is no action today!
If you say just wait until tomorrow, you will have something else for tomorrow.
I’m writing the Poem of Today for you, please just working hard from today.

Samuel Johnson: Something Less Demanding (1709-1784)

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In 1756, the English writer and man of letters Samuel Johnson wrote a proposal to publish a newly edited collection of Shakespeare’s plays. He was soon commissioned to do so by the publisher Jacob Tonson, who would have to wait seven years for a complete manuscript. Johnson got to work immediately, but soon delayed the project with a series of fun essays. He titled them, aptly, The Idler. Tonson had been warned, though—in an earlier self-published periodical called The Rambler, Johnson had spelled out his procrastinating tendencies:

I sat yesterday morning employed in deliberating on which, among the various subjects that occurred to my imagination, I should bestow the paper of to-day. After a short effort of meditation by which nothing was determined, I grew every moment more irresolute, my ideas wandered from the first intention, and I rather wished to think, than thought upon any settled subject; till at last I was awakened from this dream of study by a summons from the press; the time was now come for which I had been thus negligently purposing to provide, and, however dubious or sluggish, I was now necessitated to write.

The power of a looming deadline—the best antidote to procrastination since at least the 18th century.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Opium (1700s)

As opium use became common in 18th century England, writers such as Coleridge found themselves turning to it when they should have been writing. Coleridge left his most famous poem, Kubla Khan, incomplete thanks to the arrival at his door of “a person on business from Porlock,” as he explained in the preface to the book containing the poem. Many speculate that this was a euphemism for an opium delivery. At any rate, after the interruption, Coleridge never finished the work. The poet later bemoaned his own bad habits, calling his procrastination “a deep and wide disease in my moral nature.”

Honore de Balzac: The Charms of the City (early 19th century)

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In the first half of the 19th century, Honore de Balzac became one of history’s most prolific novelists, finishing 92 works over a two-decade period. Procrastination didn’t ail him—but he understood its pull and famously instilled it in Lucien, one of the principal characters in The Human Comedy, who could never resist “the social world” of Paris, but always believed that with the coming of a new day he’d figure out a way:

So although the work he intended to do was never done, Lucien still pursued his main purpose, in the course of that life, in which each morning dawned upon the heels of the previous night’s dissipation.

Victor Hugo: Women (1802-1885)

The string of women in Victor Hugo’s life stretches far beyond the confines of this article. Suffice to say that Hugo had a tendency to leave the house in search of female companionship. In order to keep himself indoors to finish The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he took to extreme measures, stripping down naked and having his servant remove his clothes from the room so that he would have no choice but to remain indoors, at which point the distractions fell away and he got down to work. The servant would return with the clothes at a previously agreed-upon hour.

Franz Kafka: Writing Letters (1883-1924)

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Most accounts of Kafka’s procrastination focus on his frequent afternoon naps, but those were part of the plan to actually help him work. When Kafka sat down to write after the household went quiet at night, he often whiled away the hours writing letters instead of fiction—composing over 500 for just his fiancé, Felice Bauer. He completed volumes of correspondence, but of the three novels he started, he didn’t finish any.

Virginia Woolf: The Telephone (1882-1941)

By the early 20th century, telephones were becoming common in the homes of the affluent, a development that coincided with Woolf’s emergence into adulthood. When she was steeped in the writing of a novel, she was known to blame the bell if things went awry. “Such a good morning’s writing I’d planned, and wasted the cream of my brain on the telephone,” she wrote in her diary in 1920.

Ernest Hemingway: Visitors (1899-1961)


Hemingway was a master of many things, among them sticking to a strict morning schedule of writing no matter how the previous evening had unfolded. He had an Achilles heel, though: visitors—and he got a lot of them, especially as his legend grew. Hemingway found the prospect of a good conversation hard to resist, but after years of succumbing to the temptation, he developed strategies for keeping the would-be companions away. His favorite was to get on his boat, anchor it “in the lee of some bay,” and get down to work where no one could reach him.

David Foster Wallace: Television (1962-2008)

“If past experience holds true,” Wallace told Charlie Rose in 1997, “I will probably write an hour a day and spend eight hours biting my knuckle and worrying about not writing.” In addition to knuckle-biting, Wallace would watch a lot of television (the favorite among a host of distractions). He could sit for hours on end distracting himself with it, and even had himself convinced that TV could be a useful tool, writing that its “window on nervous American self-perception is just invaluable in terms of writing fiction.”

Margaret Atwood: The Internet (1939-present)

Like nearly every other writer alive today, Atwood maintains a complicated relationship with the Internet. She embraces it more than most, with an active Twitter account and fiction published through digital outlets like Byliner and Wattpad. But she knows that the web is a beast that must be tamed: Atwood allows herself only 10 minutes per day on Twitter, and she keeps two computers on two separate desks in her office, one with an internet hookup, one without. You can guess the one on which she gets her writing done.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.