Procrastination Through the Ages: A Brief History of Wasting Time


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.

The Secret to a More Productive Workday Might Be Working Less

Being extra productive doesn’t always mean keeping your nose to the grindstone. In fact, the key to productivity could be doing just the opposite. As Clive Thompson points out at Wired, plenty of history’s most successful figures accomplished a whole lot in just a few hours, then took the rest of the day off.

While some research has found that the key to being productive is staying busy, there are plenty of examples from history that argue otherwise. Gertrude Stein often only wrote for half an hour per day. Charles Darwin would work just three or four hours in the morning, then leave most of the rest of the day to correspondence, walks, naps, and other leisure activities. Max Planck, who originated quantum physics, wrote and lectured during his mornings, but left the rest of the day for leisure and recreation—like hiking and mountain climbing. One study of scientists in the 1950s found that the most productive people surveyed spent only 10 to 20 hours a week in their offices, Thompson reports. These people were able to create world-changing work while maintaining a schedule that would shock the average office worker.

In all likelihood, these brilliant thinkers weren't productive in spite of their relaxed schedules, but because of them. Scientists have found that having a little downtime is vital to keeping your mind sharp, especially when that downtime comes in the form of taking a walk outside, which is known to boost creativity and improve mental health. People tend to be more creative when they have time to let their mind wander, according to research.

Even taking a brief break to work on another task has been shown to increase creativity. That’s why you often get your best flashes of inspiration in the shower, when you have the bandwidth to daydream. So when Charles Darwin put away his work to take a long stroll and a nap, he was just giving his mind the space it needed to chew on the ideas he was working on that morning.

If you’re not your own boss, you probably can’t say you’re going to quit working at noon and spend the rest of your day going for walks and taking long naps, but it’s helpful to understand that being your most productive self isn’t necessarily about intense time management that keeps your eyes glued to your computer screen all day. A little slacking off—especially if it’s something that lets your mind wander, like taking a stroll around the block—might actually be good for your output.

[h/t Wired]

The Popcorn Company That's Creating Jobs for Adults With Autism

A New Jersey-based gourmet popcorn company is dedicating its profits to creating new employment “popportunities” for adults on the autism spectrum, A Plus reports.

Popcorn for the People, founded by Rutgers University professor Dr. Barbie Zimmerman-Bier and her husband, radiologist Dr. Steven Bier, is a nonprofit subsidiary of the couple's charitable organization Let’s Work For Good, which focuses on "creating meaningful and lasting employment for adults with autism and developmental disabilities." Recognizing the lack of skilled employment options for adults with developmental disabilities, the Biers decided to create jobs themselves through this popcorn venture, with all of the profits going to their charitable organization. According to the site, every tin of popcorn purchased "provides at least an hour of meaningful employment" to adults with autism and other developmental disabilities, who perform jobs like making popcorn, labeling products, and marketing.

The couple developed the idea for the business and the nonprofit in 2015 when their son, Sam, grew tired of his job at a grocery store. Sam, 27, is on the autism spectrum, and after six years of working as a “cart guy,” he decided he was ready to try something new. Employment opportunities were scarce, though. Jobs that provided enough resources for someone on the spectrum tended to consist of menial work, and more skilled positions involved a tough interview process.

“Some companies mean well, but they are limited in what they can offer,” Steven Bier told TAP Into East Brunswick in 2015.

Unemployment rates are especially high among adults with autism. Last year, Drexel University reported that only 14 percent of autistic adults who use state-funded disability services are employed in paid work positions. And while high-functioning autistic adults are often perfectly capable of working in technical careers, the actual process of getting hired can be challenging. People with autism tend to struggle with understanding nuance and social conventions, which makes the interviewing process particularly difficult.

Enter the Biers' popcorn business. What began in 2015 as the Pop-In Cafe (which still sells popcorn and deli items at its New Jersey location) now distributes flavored popcorn all over the world. In three years, the organization has gone from a staff of four, with one employee on the autism spectrum, to a staff of 50, nearly half of whom are on the spectrum. In July, the organization plans to expand to a larger production facility in order to keep up with demand.

The company provides an environment for employees to learn both hard skills, like food preparation and money management, and what the company describes as “watercooler life skills.”

"There just aren't many programs that teach these sorts of things in a real-world environment, with all that entails," Bier told My Central Jersey. "These are skills that the kids can use here, and elsewhere."

According to A Plus, you can now buy Popcorn for the People in person at locations like the Red Bull Arena in New Jersey and the Lyric Theatre in Times Square. The organization sells 12 flavors of popcorn (including cookies and cream, Buffalo wing, and French toast), all created by Agnes Cushing-Ruby, a chef who donates 40 hours a week to the company.

“I never thought that the little pop-up shop would grow into this,” Sam told A Plus. “It makes me so happy to see we have helped so many people.”

[h/t A Plus]


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