090914koehn_0.mp3

The beginning of fall marks a return to cool weather, J. Crew V-necks, wall-to-wall football, and the dreaded start of the school year. Millions of students are once again donning backpacks and fresh clothes, slouching into classroom seats, and getting back to the dirty business of assignments and term papers.

As the work begins in earnest, students' best intentions to stay up on assignments — to even work ahead in class — inevitably fall by the wayside. Why do today what can be put off until tomorrow? Assignments pile up. Books stay plastic-wrapped, resting on desks caked in a thin layer of Doritos dust.

Why do we work — or not work, as it were — like this, emailing papers at the midnight deadline, sprinting red-faced to turn in assignments, pushing off engagements and bills and even family phone calls until it's embarrassingly late?

Frank Partnoy posits that there's a competitive advantage to our procrastination. In his book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay,Partnoy cited everyone from investor Warren Buffett to elite athletes to show how procrastination helps us store and then deploy energy at the proper time. "Sometimes we should trust our gut and respond instantly," Partnoy writes, "but other times we should postpone our actions and decisions (...) [T]here is both an art and a science to managing delay."

Could it be that sleep-deprived students and the more temporally reticent among us are actually secret geniuses? Was it a superior psychological strategy to marathon seasons of  The Wire and order takeout while that presentation sat unfinished — or more likely, unstarted?

"I think it's poppycock," said Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn. "Most of us aren't professional tennis players. Most of us aren't military planners waiting until the last possible minute until we pull the trigger on a bomb raid. (...) Those are not necessarily grounds to generalize from."

"The bulk of procrastination — as we experience it, as it's been studied, as it's been written about — is about all kinds of tasks in everyday life, from the creative 'I need to be working on this book chapter,' (...) to, 'Oh, I better get my tax return and figure out what's going on with my taxes before April 15th at midnight" Koehn said on Boston Public Radio.

Writer Eric Jaffe discussed "habitual hesitation" in an article for the Association for Psychological Science. Jaffe cited studies showing that procrastination was physically and professionally harmful. "People who procrastinate have higher levels of stress and lower well-being" Jaffe wrote. "[U]ndesired delay is often associated with inadequate retirement savings and missed medical visits."

For those who think their work benefits from a rush of last-minute, breakneck resolve, there is an element of truth to that notion. "Nothing so focuses a man's thoughts but the process of hanging," Koehn said, paraphrasing writer Samuel Johnson. Anxiety can focus the mind and produce quality work under pressure.

So what's the solution, then? Deadlines.

James Surowiecki, writer for The New Yorker, pointed out in a piece called "Later" that voluntary deadlines can work to establish firm limits and dissuade habitual hesitation. Surowiecki looked to ancient myth to prove the effectiveness of self-imposed deadlines, what he called "the extended will."

"A classic illustration of the extended will at work is Ulysses' decision to have his men bind him to the mast of the ship. Ulysses knows that when he hears the Sirens he will be too weak to resist steering the ship onto the rocks in pursuit of them, so he has his men bind him, thereby forcing him to adhere to his long-term aims," Surowiecki wrote.

>> To hear Nancy Koehn talk about procrastination on Boston Public Radio, click the audio at the top of this page.