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Scarlett Fever: Procrastination, Part 1
By Damona Sain   View more articles by this author
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August 14

“I can't think about that right now. If I do, I'll go crazy. I'll think about that tomorrow.” -  Scarlett O’Hara, “Gone With the Wind”

Procrastination, Part 1:
What are its origins and what is its formal definition?

Most people today admit that they procrastinate at some point—chronically or not—during their life. Usually, they talk about it with forced humor, but with an undertone of shame, guilt, or embarrassment. Occasionally, some will boast about it. If you’re a college student, you’re probably a champion procrastinator. But for all of us, there’s an intended delay involved and an understanding that we’ll pay a price for that delay.

Procrastination is tied into expectancy and low confidence. The more you perceive a task as being unpleasant, the more you procrastinate. Are you easily distracted, impulsive? Are long-term goals just too far in the future for you? All this can lead to procrastination.

The origins of the word come from as far back as 800 BC when Hesiod, a poet recorded in very early Greek literature, wrote: “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.”

In 400 BC, Thuydides, an Athenian general, wrote about personalities and strategies that alluded to procrastination. And Marcus Cicero, holding the highest political office in Rome in 44 BC and an orator, denounced Mark Anthony in a speech, saying, “In the conduct of almost every affair slowness and procrastination are hateful.”

Even Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, written ~500 BC, wrote "Undisciplined, vulgar, stubborn, wicked, malicious, lazy, depressed, and procrastinating; such an agent is called a Taamasika agent." Taamasikans were considered so lowly that they went straight to hell; reincarnation was denied to them.

The origin of the actual word comes to us from, of course, Latin, procrastinus. Pro means forward, forth, or in favor of, and crastinus means of tomorrow. Its practical meaning, though, can be interpreted in different ways. The Oxford English Dictionary (1996) defines it as: “Defer action, especially without good reason.” The Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary states: “To put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done.” Some definitions mention laziness or slowness, illogic or intention; almost all give it an air of negativity.

 If the word “procrastination” is one you want to avoid, try any of the following—dillydallying, lollygagging, shillyshallying (or maybe even a Taamasika agent). If you really want to throw people off your propensity to “lollygag,” then try cunctation or dilatoriness. They’ll think you are probably using a dirty word or that you are a dilettante but in any case, it will divert them from thinking of you as a procrastinator.

Procrastination, however you define it, is an equal opportunity affliction; one author called it the “mañana illusion.” We have the illusion that the delay won’t hurt anyone, that we will be able to control later what that we can’t control today. One blogger liked to use the word “perendinate,” which means “to put something off until the day after tomorrow.” Why wait only one day to delay something when there is a word that was coined to add an extra day of delay?

Although some sources note that procrastination arose in conjunction with the Industrial Revolution, it’s clear that we humans have wrestled with some form of it for a very long time. Many researchers have found that it has increased dramatically in the last 25 years. This is likely related to an increase in the number of tasks that we are called on to do, with each one having a series of future deadlines. 

There is a hard-wired basis to procrastination, a leftover from the need for immediacy in the survival of prehistoric man. If you didn’t act now, that saber-toothed tiger would destroy and devour you. If you were the hungry one, you killed and ate the tiger quickly; if sleepy, you rested. It was not necessary to think farther ahead. As life became more complex, and we became more removed from direct and tangible threats (or bodily functions), our old brains still tended to prefer attending to the immediate. After all, that’s where the rewards were. Thus, impulsivity and being distracted by present rewards leads to putting off tasks with future goals. Who wants to start a midterm paper due for a college class today if you can Twitter your friends instead? To postpone the present need wasn’t adaptive behavior when our brains were forming but today, it’s the impulsive behavior that is less adaptive.

Procrastination, Part 2.


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Comments (


Comment by iwillbe89
23 Aug 2015 05:12 PM
Definitely makes sense!
Comment by born2win
24 Feb 2011 09:54 PM
some more articles, please. Things like that keep me going...
thank you
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