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What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?

by James Surowiecki OCTOBER 11, 2010

Some years ago, the economist George Akerlof found himself faced with a simple task: mailing a box of clothes from India, where he was living, to the United States. The clothes belonged to his friend and colleague Joseph Stiglitz, who had left them behind when visiting, so Akerlof was eager to send the box off. But there was a problem. The combination of Indian bureaucracy and what Akerlof called “my own ineptitude in such matters” meant that doing so was going to be a hassle—indeed, he estimated that it would take an entire workday. So he put off dealing with it, week after week. This went on for more than eight months, and it was only shortly before Akerlof himself returned home that he managed to solve his problem: another friend happened to be sending some things back to the U.S., and Akerlof was able to add Stiglitz’s clothes to the shipment. Given the vagaries of intercontinental mail, it’s possible that Akerlof made it back to the States before Stiglitz’s shirts did.

There’s something comforting about this story: even Nobel-winning economists procrastinate! Many of us go through life with an array of undone tasks, large and small, nibbling at our conscience. But Akerlof saw the experience, for all its familiarity, as mysterious. He genuinely intended to send the box to his friend, yet, as he wrote, in a paper called “Procrastination and Obedience” (1991), “each morning for over eight months I woke up and decided that the next morning would be the day to send the Stiglitz box.” He was always about to send the box, but the moment to act never arrived. Akerlof, who became one of the central figures in behavioral economics, came to the realization that procrastination might be more than just a bad habit. He argued that it revealed something important about the limits of rational thinking and that it could teach useful lessons about phenomena as diverse as substance abuse and savings habits. Since his essay was published, the study of procrastination has become a significant field in academia, with philosophers, psychologists, and economists all weighing in.

Academics, who work for long periods in a self-directed fashion, may be especially prone to putting things off: surveys suggest that the vast majority of college students procrastinate, and articles in the literature of procrastination often allude to the author’s own problems with finishing the piece. (This article will be no exception.) But the academic buzz around the subject isn’t just a case of eggheads rationalizing their slothfulness. As various scholars argue in “The Thief of Time,” edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White (Oxford; $65)—a collection of essays on procrastination, ranging from the resolutely theoretical to the surprisingly practical—the tendency raises fundamental philosophical and psychological issues. You may have thought, the last time you blew off work on a presentation to watch “How I Met Your Mother,” that you were just slacking. But from another angle you were actually engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time. Indeed, one essay, by the economist George Ainslie, a central figure in the study of procrastination, argues that dragging our heels is “as fundamental as the shape of time and could well be called the basic impulse.”

Ainslie is probably right that procrastination is a basic human impulse, but anxiety about it as a serious problem seems to have emerged in the early modern era. The term itself (derived from a Latin word meaning “to put off for tomorrow”) entered the English language in the sixteenth century, and, by the eighteenth, Samuel Johnson was describing it as “one of the general weaknesses” that “prevail to a greater or less degree in every mind,” and lamenting the tendency in himself: “I could not forbear to reproach myself for having so long neglected what was unavoidably to be done, and of which every moment’s idleness increased the difficulty.” And the problem seems to be getting worse all the time. According to Piers Steel, a business professor at the University of Calgary, the percentage of people who admitted to difficulties with procrastination quadrupled between 1978 and 2002. In that light, it’s possible to see procrastination as the quintessential modern problem.

It’s also a surprisingly costly one. Each year, Americans waste hundreds of millions of dollars because they don’t file their taxes on time. The Harvard economist David Laibson has shown that American workers have forgone huge amounts of money in matching 401(k) contributions because they never got around to signing up for a retirement plan. Seventy per cent of patients suffering from glaucoma risk blindness because they don’t use their eyedrops regularly. Procrastination also inflicts major costs on businesses and governments. The recent crisis of the euro was exacerbated by the German government’s dithering, and the decline of the American auto industry, exemplified by the bankruptcy of G.M., was due in part to executives’ penchant for delaying tough decisions. (In Alex Taylor’s recent history of G.M., “Sixty to Zero,” one of the key conclusions is “Procrastination doesn’t pay.”)

Philosophers are interested in procrastination for another reason. It’s a powerful example of what the Greeks called akrasia—doing something against one’s own better judgment. Piers Steel defines procrastination as willingly deferring something even though you expect the delay to make you worse off. In other words, if you’re simply saying “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” you’re not really procrastinating. Knowingly delaying because you think that’s the most efficient use of your time doesn’t count, either. The essence of procrastination lies in not doing what you think you should be doing, a mental contortion that surely accounts for the great psychic toll the habit takes on people. This is the perplexing thing about procrastination: although it seems to involve avoiding unpleasant tasks, indulging in it generally doesn’t make people happy. In one study, sixty-five per cent of students surveyed before they started working on a term paper said they would like to avoid procrastinating: they knew both that they wouldn’t do the work on time and that the delay would make them unhappy.

Leer artículo completo en The New Yorker

RED – Rothko

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Escape Artist

Mark Rothko onstage.

by John Lahr April 12, 2010

Mark Rothko’s life was a series of abdications: from Russia, when he was ten; from his father, who died six months after arriving in Portland, Oregon; from Yale, after two years; and from life itself, when he committed suicide, on February 25, 1970. A fractious, hard-drinking, unhealthy, and unhappy soul, Rothko was a gourmand of his griefs. By contrast, his large, luminous abstract canvases—spectacles of subtraction of all subject matter, including the self—turned abdication into an art form. Rothko was the first to paint “empty” pictures. His blocks of floating iridescence were the public answer to Action painting; privately, they were also a kind of vanishing act. At a party where Expressionism was being discussed, Rothko leaned over to the art critic Harold Rosenberg and whispered, “I don’t express myself in my paintings; I express my not-self.”

In John Logan’s “Red” (elegantly directed by Michael Grandage, at the Golden), Rothko (Alfred Molina) is onstage twenty minutes before the play begins. He’s in his studio, a vast cave of consciousness that, subtly designed by Christopher Oram, also suggests a sanctuary. Rothko sits in a blue wooden chair with his back to us, surrounded by unfinished canvases that are propped against the high, dingy walls; he is studying one of five huge murals that he’s been commissioned to do for the new Seagram Building. His first gesture, once the play begins, is to walk up to the painting and feel the canvas with the flat of his hand. Rothko is already well inside the painting; the success of Logan’s smart, eloquent entertainment is to bring us in there with him.

For a month in 1949, Rothko went to the Museum of Modern Art to stand in front of Matisse’s “The Red Studio,” which the museum had newly acquired. Looking at it, he said, “you became that color, you became totally saturated with it.” Rothko turned his transcendental experience into an artistic strategy; his work demanded surrender to the physical sensation of color. “Compressing his feelings into a few zones of color,” Rosenberg wrote, “he was at once dramatist, actor, and audience of his self-negation.” Rothko escaped from the hell of personal chaos into the paradise of color. “To paint a small picture is to place yourself outside your experience,” he said. “However, you paint the large picture, you are in it.”

Fragmento tomado de The New Yorker.

Ver más información en Red on Broadway y en The New Yorker