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Procrastination, Thoreau, and modern psychologists

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I'm not working by quinn.anya via FlickrFeeble attempts to dispel procrastination

I am tired.  I am procrastinating.  I have  a messy confused project on my desk so I switched on the Conservative party conference under the pretext that Hague makes sense and I should listen to the Prime Minister.  I have no idea who was speaking but that time-filling gambit didn’t last long. British politicians SHOUT.  Anything on my desk seems preferable to the assault on my ears.

Procrastination doesn’t work

I thought briefly I had found the fail safe solution to procrastination.  Switch on a party political broadcast.

But within moments, my thoughts had drifted to a book in the other room:  Walden, Henry Thoreau’s classic account of his experiment living frugally in the woods while he studied.

Henry Thoreau and Walden

Thoreau was a principled man, it seems.  In the same breath that he talks of  hoeing beans, he talks of sheltering runaway slaves.  He mentions just as dispassionately about being jailed for not paying his taxes because he refused to pay tax to a government that condoned slavery.

Thoreau and procrastination

Thoreau would have thought less of me for doing work that leads to procrastination.  He believes his experiment for living on almost nothing (rather than steeling himself to live on almost nothing) demonstrates:

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavours to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.

He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws will be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the licence of a higher order of things.

In proportion, as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitde, nor poverty povery, nor weakness weakness.

If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost: that is where they should be.  Now put foundations under them.”  (p. 280 of the 1927 edition).

Thoreau and self-regulation

I wonder what Thoreau would have thought of modern psychology.  I think he would have despised it.  Yet some of it is helpful.

Peter Gollwitzer’s work on “wish to intent” and “crossing the Rubicon” highlights the phenomenon that Thoreau describes.  When we are “in full flight”, when we are in flow (Cziksentmihalyi), everything suddently becomes very easy.

Roy Baumeister indirectly also confirms Thoreau’s view.  Baumeister shows experimentally that when we have to make a difficult choice, like eating chocolate instead of something less pleasant like radishes, we show less ability to control ourselves on the next task.  This is why, in David Whyte’s words it is important “to leave all other world’s behind us”.  Or the “the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness”.

When we are tired we need to move toward “the channel in which our life flows”.

A solution to my procrastination

So I am tired.  Allowing myself respite, will help.  Compromising on the quality of that report will not.  Compromise will make me tireder.

Yup, I least I am not fighting distaste.  I have a challenge now; not an annoyance.



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