Thanks so much to all who came for the first seminar of the term, Professor Vince Crawford’s ‘Now or later? Present bias and time-inconsistency in intertemporal choice’.
You can find Vince’s slides here.
Thanks so much to all who came for the first seminar of the term, Professor Vince Crawford’s ‘Now or later? Present bias and time-inconsistency in intertemporal choice’.
You can find Vince’s slides here.
The following is a guest blog by Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika, one of our speakers in this autumn’s Procrastination Seminar. Come and hear Tamara discuss ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’ on Wednesday 29 October at 5.30pm in the Old Library, All Souls College, Oxford.
Il n’y a de long ouvrage que celui qu’on n’ose pas commencer. Il devient cauchemar.
The only difficult work is that which we dare not begin. It becomes a nightmare.*
These words by the accursed poet, the writer of beautiful spleen and terrifying idéal himself, are a perfect mantra for anyone experiencing the entrancing throes of procrastination.
The sentence that follows them in his Journaux Intimes (1887)—“By putting off what one has to do, one runs the danger of never being able to do it”—confirms that Baudelaire was no stranger to procrastination. Since he speaks of it as danger, risk, or haunting nightmare, it is not surprising that he also offers thoughts on how to counter its siren call.
A few lines further, in a section titled “Hygiene. Morality. Behaviour.”, Baudelaire makes this note-to-self: “An abridgement of wisdom. Grooming, prayer, work.” As editor Claude Pichois explains, the poet viewed the ritual of prayer as a process through which to gather his spirits, focus on his work, and enhance his determination.
Indeed, although Baudelaire penned the figure of the flâneur who whiles away the hours in observant but unproductive wanderings, his journals show that he actually aspired to a work ethic that defies procrastination (“Work tirelessly six days a week”)—and that there is another key figure of his oeuvre which is closely connected to this preoccupation with time and creation: the dandy.
In his essay The Painter of Modern Life (1863), Baudelaire depicts the dandy as a man stoically devoted to “cultivat[ing] the idea of beauty” in himself, assiduously crafting his existence into a work of art. While some are quick to discard the dandy as a superficial figure, the Journaux Intimes underline that Baudelaire’s dandy has depth: he is the “superior man”, who must “be sublime without interruption” and even “like to work”, so long as it is not for the mundane purpose of making a living—since he is by definition, as is clearly stated, wealthy and powerful enough to not be concerned with such trivialities.
The dandy’s meticulous grooming and steadfast commitment to sustaining a cold, proud façade (he has an “unshakable resolve not to be moved”) are less frivolous than popular opinion would have it: as Baudelaire’s above note-to-self indicates, they are an antidote to procrastination, a morally-driven behaviour at the service of creation. By dedicating his every minute to embodying his aesthetic ideal, unperturbed by the rest of the world, the dandy’s mere being—both in appearance and thought—is art, without having to produce anything outside of himself.
The poet, however, does not necessarily have this luxury. In his poem “La Fin de la Journée” from the iconic Fleurs du Mal (1857), Baudelaire writes that a poet always welcomes nighttime with a relieved “At Last!”—not only because he revels, in romantic fashion, in its soothing shadows, but also because it “erases everything, even shame”. Tormented by the pressure of time and productivity (daytime is “pushy and shrill” in the poem), the poet feels at home in the moment at which rest and sleep (darkly likened to entombment) are expected.
As evident in the use of the words ‘erase’ and ‘shame’, artistic self-doubt looms behind the poet’s procrastinatory tendency and his desire for respite from, even destruction of, his work. In Baudelaire’s “Le Confiteor de l’Artiste” (from the prose poetry collection, Le Spleen de Paris, 1869), the speaker, in awe of the splendour and vastness of the world, confesses: “The study of beauty is a duel in which the artist screams out of fear before being vanquished.” The poet is paralysed by the beauty that he sees in the light of day, unsure he will be able to match its wonder.
The dandy, untroubled by ordinary considerations or feelings (deadlines, bills, or low self-confidence are foreign to him), is indefatigably focused on being his own masterpiece (he must even “sleep in front of a mirror”, according to the Journeaux Intimes). The poet, confronted with the realities of life and his own anxieties, instead finds solace at night, when the spectre of what has not been achieved during the day fades. He can then stop writing and revising—or on the contrary, stop putting it off and quietly start all over again—liberated by the sense that the late hours demand nothing from him, that darkness is a blank slate.
Baudelaire’s work is a Pierian spring for procrastinators. The flâneur, who merely promenades through the modern city, without aiming to create anything, may be the first of Baudelaire’s key figures to come to the procrastinator’s mind: how could the freedom of idling along the streets with no obligation not be tempting when faced with a daunting task? Moreover, as is commonly accepted, a stroll may spark renewed creativity (though that is not what the true flâneur seeks).
Yet Baudelaire’s oeuvre presents an alternate figure for procrastinators to draw inspiration from: the dandy, who pledges his life so entirely to his aesthetic principles (in a manner assimilated to ‘spiritualism’ in the author’s essay) that his every move serves to realise them. Those who have creative rituals may find a new spiritual leader in Baudelaire’s dandy and challenge themselves to emulate the constancy underpinning his sartorial and behavioural choices. As we have seen, Baudelaire apparently practiced prayer—as well as perfect dress—to concentrate his creative energy.
Nevertheless, given that neither of these “ideal” figures (who, it is important to note, are not in fact procrastinators, since they are not required to produce anything to begin with) represents a tenable way of life for the average person in our society, the procrastinator may simply find it reassuring to listen to the voice of the third figure, the poet, echoing through Baudelaire’s writing—a voice which speaks of uncertainty and fear, but still decides to ring out and not remain silent.
*All quotes in English are my translations from the French texts.
Less than a week to go until the first seminar, and our new and improved poster is crawling its way around the libraries of Oxford.
Check out our speakers’ bios here, and click here for your very own über-collectible PDF to print out and carry in your wallet. We look forward to seeing you at All Souls College next Wednesday. (Schedule updated on 14 October.)
All talks will be held on Wednesdays at 5.30pm in the Old Library at All Souls College on the High Street, Oxford (see our handy map). All are welcome, and of course the seminars are free. We will endeavour to provide wine and maybe even the odd nibble.
Note: this schedule was updated on 14 October.
Vince is the Drummond Professor of Political Economy, and has a longstanding interest in behavioural and experimental economics. He boasts that he was thinking about preproperation (or precrastination) long before anyone else.
22 October: Professor Diane Purkiss, ‘The writer’s brain: Ernest Hemingway’s traumas and addictions’
‘Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment,’ wrote notorious wit Robert Benchley (Chips Off the Old Benchley, 1949) in the now-classic slogan for structured procrastination. If side projects make you more productive, Diane is a Fordist fantasy. Alongside writer’s block, her areas of interest include the English Civil War; Milton and Marvell; the supernatural, especially witchcraft; women’s writing; food and food history; children’s literature; and writing mythical novels as one half of Tobias Druitt.
29 October: John McManus, ‘Driven to distraction: football supporters, technology use and the politics of place-making’
John is an anthropologist of popular culture and migration, especially smartphone-wielding Turkish football fans. When taking a well-earned rest from the terraces, he can be found lending his voice to winsome indie-folk outfit the Yarns.
Tamara Spitzer-Hobeika, ‘Baudelaire’s dandy: the anti-procrastinator’
Tamara is a research officer with Oxford’s Programme in Comparative Media Law and Policy. She has worked on such dilettantish topics as hate speech, missile defence policy, and nuclear proliferation—seasoned with a soupçon of Baudelaire.
5 November: Huw Lemmey (LimaZulu), TBC
Arthur Downing, ‘Procrastination, working-class saving, and institutional design in the nineteenth century’
Arthur is an economic historian, and one of the original organizers of our 2 July procrastivaganza. His DPhil looks at the saving patterns of working class households in nineteenth century Britain, and how individuals overcame their procrastinatory and myopic tendencies to put off saving. It hasn’t helped him be more self-controlled. He knows the words to nearly every Friends episode.
12 November: Dr Bill Prosser, ‘Drawing—it’s a drag’
Bill’s drawings have been exhibited internationally. He was a Leverhulme Senior Research Fellow at the University of Reading and Andrew W. Mellon Research Fellow at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas. He has written on art and Beckett and is currently a Research Fellow at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford.
Katrina Mayson, ‘Procrastination or professionalism? Elizabeth Bishop’s chronic “second thought habit”’
Katrina Mayson is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Her research is on the lives of objects within Elizabeth Bishop’s writings, with a specific focus on her work as translator and the influence of Brazilian language and culture on her poetry.
Anna Della Subin, our conference programme declared, ‘writes about sleepwalkers, grave worship, animal rights in Cairo, mummies, imperial Ethiopian court etiquette, visions of the flood, thirteenth-century occulists, 300-year naps, resurrection, men becoming gods, and gods becoming men.’
Now our multitalented speaker has provided a wonderful précis of our 2 July conference, and a novel take on embracing idleness, in this weekend’s New York Times. See below—or click here for the original, complete with zingy cartoons by Viktor Hachmang.
“Procrastination, quite frankly, is an epidemic,” declares Jeffery Combs, the author of “The Procrastination Cure,” just one in a vast industry of self-help books selling ways to crush the beast. The American Psychological Association estimates that 20 percent of American men and women are “chronic procrastinators.” Figures place the amount of money lost in the United States to procrastinating employees at trillions of dollars a year.
A recent infographic in The Economist revealed that in the 140 million hours humanity spent watching “Gangnam Style” on YouTube two billion times, we could have built at least four more (desperately needed) pyramids at Giza. Endless articles pose the question of why we procrastinate, what’s going wrong in the brain, how to overcome it, and the fascinating irrationality of it all.
But if procrastination is so clearly a society-wide, public condition, why is it always framed as an individual, personal deficiency? Why do we assume our own temperaments and habits are at fault—and feel bad about them—rather than question our culture’s canonization of productivity?
I was faced with these questions at an unlikely event this past July—an academic conference on procrastination at the University of Oxford. It brought together a bright and incongruous crowd: an economist, a poetry professor, a “biographer of clutter,” a queer theorist, a connoisseur of Iraqi coffee-shop culture. There was the doctoral student who spoke on the British painter Keith Vaughan, known to procrastinate through increasingly complicated experiments in auto-erotica. There was the children’s author who tied herself to her desk with her shoelaces.
The keynote speaker, Tracey Potts, brought a tin of sugar cookies she had baked in the shape of the notorious loiterer Walter Benjamin. The German philosopher famously procrastinated on his “Arcades Project,” a colossal meditation on the cityscape of Paris where the figure of the flâneur—the procrastinator par excellence—would wander. Benjamin himself fatally dallied in escaping the city ahead of the Nazis. He took his own life, leaving the manuscript forever unfinished, more evidence, it would seem, that no avoidable delay goes unpunished.
As we entered the ninth, grueling hour of the conference, a professor laid out a taxonomy of dithering so enormous that I couldn’t help but wonder: Whatever you’re doing, aren’t you by nature procrastinating from doing something else? Seen in this light, procrastination begins to look a lot like just plain existing. But then along come its foot soldiers—guilt, self-loathing, blame.
Dr. Potts explained how procrastination entered the field as pathological behavior in the mid-20th century. Drawing on the work of the British-born historian Christopher Lane, Dr. Potts directed our attention to a United States War Department bulletin issued in 1945 that chastised soldiers who were avoiding their military duties “by passive measures, such as pouting, stubbornness, procrastination, inefficiency and passive obstructionism.” In 1952, when the American Psychiatric Association assembled the first edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the bible of mental health used to determine illness to this day—it copied the passage from the cranky military memo verbatim.
And so, procrastination became enshrined as a symptom of mental illness. By the mid-60s, passive-aggressive personality disorder had become a fairly common diagnosis and “procrastination” remained listed as a symptom in several subsequent editions. “Dawdling” was added to the list, after years of delay.
While passive-aggressive personality disorder has been erased from the official portion of the manual, the stigma of slothfulness remains. Many of us, it seems, are still trying to enforce a military-style precision on our intellectual, creative, civilian lives—and often failing. Even at the conference, participants proposed strategies for beating procrastination that were chillingly martial. The economist suggested that we all “take hostages”—place something valuable at stake as a way of negotiating with our own belligerent minds. The children’s author writes large checks out to political parties she loathes, and entrusts them to a relative to mail if she misses a deadline.
All of which leads me to wonder: Are we imposing standards on ourselves that make us mad?
Though Expeditus’s pesky crow may be ageless, procrastination as epidemic—and the constant guilt that goes with it—is peculiar to the modern era. The 21st-century capitalist world, in its never-ending drive for expansion, consecrates an always-on productivity for the sake of the greater fiscal health.
In an 1853 short story Herman Melville gave us Bartleby, the obstinate scrivener and apex procrastinator, who confounds the requests of his boss with his hallowed mantra, “I would prefer not to.” A perfect employee on the surface — he never leaves the office and sleeps at his desk—Bartleby represents a total rebellion against the expectations placed on him by society. Politely refusing to accept money or to remove himself from his office even after he is fired, the copyist went on to have an unexpected afterlife—as hero for the Occupy movement in 2012. “Bartleby was the first laid-off worker to occupy Wall Street,” Jonathan D. Greenberg noted in The Atlantic. Confronted with Bartleby’s serenity and his utter noncompliance with the status quo, his perplexed boss is left wondering whether he himself is the one who is mad.
A month before the procrastination conference, I set myself the task of reading “Oblomov,” the 19th-century Russian novel by Ivan Goncharov about the ultimate slouch, who, over the course of 500 pages, barely moves from his bed, and then only to shift to the sofa. At least that’s what I heard: I failed to make it through more than two pages at a sitting without putting the novel down and allowing myself to drift off. I would carry the heavy book everywhere with me—it was like an anchor into a deep, blissful sea of sleep.
Oblomov could conduct the few tasks he cared to from under his quilt — writing letters, accepting visitors — but what if he’d had an iPhone and a laptop? Being in bed is now no excuse for dawdling, and no escape from the guilt that accompanies it. The voice—societal or psychological—urging us away from sloth to the pure, virtuous heights of productivity has become a sort of birdlike shriek as more individuals work from home and set their own schedules, and as the devices we use for work become alluring sirens to our own distraction. We are now able to accomplish tasks at nearly every moment, even if we prefer not to.
Still, humans will never stop procrastinating, and it might do us good to remember that the guilt and shame of the do-it-tomorrow cycle are not necessarily inescapable. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about mental illness that it acquires its reality as an illness “only within a culture that recognizes it as such.” Why not view procrastination not as a defect, an illness or a sin, but as an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers? To start, we might replace Expeditus with a new saint.
At the conference, I was invited to speak about the Egyptian-born novelist Albert Cossery, a true icon of the right to remain lazy. In the mid-1940s, Cossery wrote a novel in French, “Laziness in the Fertile Valley,” about a family in the Nile Delta that sleeps all day. Their somnolence is a form of protest against a world forever ruled by tyrants winding the clock. Born in 1913 in Cairo, Cossery grew up in a place that still retained cultural memories of the introduction of Western notions of time, a once foreign concept. It had arrived along with British military forces in the late 19th century. To turn Egypt into a lucrative colony, it needed to run on a synchronized, efficient schedule. The British replaced the Islamic lunar calendar with the Gregorian, preached the values of punctuality, and spread the gospel that time equaled money.
Firm in his belief that time is not as natural or apolitical as we might think, Cossery, in his writings and in his life, strove to reject the very system in which procrastination could have any meaning at all. Until his death in 2008, the elegant novelist, living in Paris, maintained a strict schedule of idleness. He slept late, rising in the afternoons for a walk to the Café de Flore, and wrote fiction only when he felt like it. “So much beauty in the world, so few eyes to see it,” Cossery would say. He was the archetypal flâneur, in the footsteps of Walter Benjamin and Charles Baudelaire, whose verses Cossery would steal for his own poetry when he was a teenager. Rather than charge through the day, storming the gates of tomorrow, his stylized repose was a perch from which to observe, reflect and question whether the world really needs all those things we feel we ought to get done—like a few more pyramids at Giza. And it was idleness that led Cossery to true creativity, dare I say it, in his masterfully unprolific work.
After my talk, someone came up to ask me what I thought was the ideal length of a nap. Saint Cossery was smiling. Already one small battle had been won.
Thomas de Quincey claimed it was worse than murder. Krishna declared it a sign of a degenerate soul. For Abraham Lincoln’s wife it was her ‘evil genius’. Estimates suggest that 80-95% of college students engage in it, and 20% of people are chronic sufferers. Even the Ancient Egyptians bitched about it in hieroglyphics.
Lollygagging, swithering, dithering, dillydallying, shillyshallying. Procrastination is ubiquitous—perhaps especially among academics and writers. Yet it remains curiously understudied. It is a dirty word.
One balmy July morning at the very unprocrastinatory hour of 8.30am, we set about rectifying the deficit. A host of bleary-eyed scholars, students, journalists and miscellaneous others straggled in with a variety of excuses. Our favourite: ‘Sorry, I accidentally came yesterday.’
A mere two months later, we’ve finally got around to summarizing the day.
Though the humanities haven’t got round to saying much about procrastination, other disciplines have. Economic historian Avner Offer opened by summarizing the state of the field. Rational choice theory can tell us how long we ought to delay. Behavioural economics can explain why we delay. But the humanities can tell us what procrastination feels like: ‘indecision is destiny’. As one participant later suggested, it is only through such cultural explorations—from Hamlet to Homer—that we can understand ‘the phenomenology of procrastination’ in all its richness.
Avner concluded with some helpful advice about being more decisive. When to stop dating and put a ring on it? The optimal number of prospective mates to ‘sample’ is 37 (!!!)—or if you have lower standards, 12.
Albert Einstein famously played the violin, while Keith Vaughan, mid-century British painter, prolific diarist and the subject of Alex Belsey’s presentation, was a prolific masturbator. The first panel tackled the fraught relationship between procrastination and creativity, the spectrum between Einstein’s creative ‘play’ and Vaughan’s self-loathing. Will May discussed poetry as product of and prompter toward procrastination, part of his broader project on the cultural history of poetry and whimsy. Rebecca Birrell later expanded this theme, with a sensitive exploration of contemporary poets Rachael Allen and Sam Riviere.
In his paper on The Tempest, Johannes Schlegel explored the possibility that procrastination describes the theatre, where the deceleration of real time to absorb theatrical time creates a meaningful stasis. Conversely, the modernist novel captures the flux of capital and commodity culture, argued Oliver Neto. Stephen Daedalus’s flânerie and the hybrid prose-poetry of Ulysses together evoke the widespread boredom of capitalist Dublin.
Ulysses thus offered an emancipatory opening in the face of colonialism and alienation. Later speakers took up this theme: the revalorization of procrastination as possibly positive.
Papers by Lilith Dornhuber de Bellesiles and Mrinalini Greedharry presented alternative subjectivities of procrastination. Lilith offered a theoretically robust ‘queering’ of mainstream conceptions of time, while Mrinalini considered procrastination as ‘an epistemological condition situated somewhere between awareness, habit, and unknowing’. Reading together postcolonial theory with Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling, she called for alternative—and more humble—forms of knowledge.
Two papers on francophone authors, by Anna Della Subin and Kamel Boudjemil, opened up more revolutionary alternatives. If procrastination depends on internalizing clock time, Anna Della argued, the debonair Egyptian novelist Albert Cossery lived and wrote a radical idleness entirely outside this model. The Marxist theorist Guy Debord chalked Ne travaillez jamais on a Parisian wall, Kamel noted; the booze-fuelled wanderings of his Situationist International attempted to subvert not only the notion of work but the bourgeois city itself.
This raises the question of whether procrastination is a universal—all those hieroglyphic rebukes—or whether it is inextricably linked to a very specific ‘modernity’. Is procrastination a product of factory time and the Protestant work ethic, spread about the world via colonialism and the inexorable spread of capitalism?
Our speakers broadly agreed that perceptions and manifestations of procrastination are historically variable and culturally conditioned, from James Joyce’s Dublin to Cossery’s Egypt and the contested coffee houses of early-twentieth-century Baghdad (Pelle Valentin Olsen). Susanne Bayerlipp even uncovered procrastination in early modern letters. Young English travellers in Italy were chastised by their elders for sidelining their academic pursuits in favour of pleasure. The Erasmus program, she seemed to suggest, is named for the humanist scholar with good reason.
Nowhere is this cultural contingency more apparent than in the flowering of self-help literature, explored by our three final speakers. Susan Machum provided a devastating summary of the endless lists of advice in twenty contemporary self-help books, noting the message of individual responsibility they propagate. In contrast to the fluffiness of this literature, Barbara Leckie offered a witty reading of Middlemarch as an exploration of procrastination—with Casaubon as the everyman academic.
The closing keynote, by OCLW visiting scholar Tracey Potts, presented a genealogy of procrastination. The work forms part of Tracey’s Leverhulme-funded research project for her forthcoming book, Neither Use Nor Ornament: Friction and Flow in the Information Age.
Tracey argued that the demonization of procrastination is a form of biopower, achieved through the factory, the military, and the clinic. Attendees were alarmed to hear that ‘procrastination’ appeared (alongside ‘pouting’ and ‘stubbornness’) in the American Psychiatric Association’s 1952 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM)—as a direct import from the US military.
Swiftly procrastination became reconfigured not as a behaviour, but as a symptom of a pathological personality. This theme is continued in contemporary self-help books, more and more colonized by cod-neurobiology.
Tracey concluded the conference with a rousing call to resist moralization and medicalization. ‘The maths simply doesn’t stack up,’ she argued. Not all causes of delay are down to individuals ‘choosing’ failure. And, following Zygmunt Bauman, ‘indolent people are only a problem in a society of producers.’
After a stimulating communal discussion—covering everything from zero-hours contracts to the masochistic writers’ aid Write or Die—participants headed to the Mañanarama exhibition for some much-needed drinks.
The exhibition displayed a host of procrastinatory artefacts, including an Ostrich pillow, a 91-year-old magazine advertising wacky invention ‘The Sleep Eliminator’, original documents from the Situationist International, and Tracey’s very own Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter—made, of course, while avoiding work.
The Cunctator Prize for the best graduate paper (sponsored by the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust) was awarded to Frank Hangler of the Oxford Internet Institute. His lively paper, ‘Cutting the Cord’, assessed technology as both the source of and solution to procrastination.
After the conference we were still left wondering: what exactly is procrastination? If we’re not happy with the economists’ model, how can we begin to define it? What is its relationship with cousin concepts, like idleness and boredom?
More terrifying was the realisation that maybe we academics are the peculiar ones. As Jane Shilling summarized for The Telegraph:
It was during a paper on Procrastinating Abroad that the God in the machine made an unexpected appearance. We were considering Hieronymus Turler’s 1585 warning to the concerned relations of 16th-century gap-year travellers: (‘Three things come out of Italy: a naughty conscience, an empty purse and a weak stomach’) when from somewhere in the roof came the clarion sound of a duo of distinctly unacademic voices engaged in an animated discussion of air vents. Above the sussuration of ruffled scholarly feathers, a quick-witted attendee remarked, ‘I hate to tell you, but they’re probably working!’
Interested? We’ll be debating all these questions and more next term at the Procrastination Seminar, on Wednesdays at 5.30pm at All Souls College.
Further details…are coming soon.
The Procrastination: Cultural Explorations conference was generously supported by OCLW, TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), and All Souls College.
‘Procrastination is the thief of time,’ runs the most famous line from Edward Young’s Night-Thoughts. (‘Collar him!’ added Mr Micawber.)
Edward Young is today now largely forgotten: his ‘religious enthusiasm and epigrammatic density cost him readers’, his biographer informs us, while his reputation was further dented when George Eliot attacked his ‘radical insincerity’. But the adage lives on.
Here it is in a nineteenth-century Ohio guest book,
here in the title of an intriguing set of essays on procrastination (2010)
as well as a Discworld novel (2001) in which a sinister race of ‘Auditors’ attempt to take the scientific quest to manage time to its logical conclusion—by freezing time through the perfect clock
and here, most wonderfully, in the 1930s in the hand of Time magazine, in a letter sent to late-paying subscribers.
It was apparently quite successful. As Young reminds us a few lines later, ‘Be wise today; ’tis madness to defer.’
Another of our Mañanarama exhibits, this time a vintage magazine.
The Luxembourg-born Hugo Gernsback invented more than just Twitter’s favourite Isolator helmet in his quest to beat time-wasting. He aimed for nothing less than an end to sleep itself.
If any disease robbed us of a third of our lifetimes, medical research would go wild. To conquer sleep would be ‘a wonderful boon to the race’ and to productivity, Gernsback argued. Slumber was merely a ‘habit… mainly due to astronomical reasons’, and would one day become unnecessary—after all, protozoa and many fish do not sleep (p. 1062).
His Sleep Eliminator, starring in the March 1923 edition of Science and Invention, used electric currents, oxygen tanks and ozone generators. Together these promised ‘to eliminate sleep for any length of time’ (p. 1114). ‘With methods such as these,’ he concluded cheerfully, ‘there is no probability that the subjects will experience any ill effects, and will not be worse off for having worked a week, or even a month, day in and day out’ (p. 1137).
The same magazine issue also included a short story by H.G. Wells (‘The Star’), alongside suggestions for electrical moth-proofing, futuristic submarines, amateur magicians, and very twenty-first-century adverts for strongfortism and ‘The Creative Power of Mind in Action: You Can Create the Things You Desire’.
Today anti-sleep research is largely the province of military scientists. ‘Cures’ include drugs, supplements, masks—and ‘transcranial direct-current stimulation’ via a Gernsbackesque electrical headband.
If you’d like to meander further, here’s another of our Mañanarama exhibits—on procrastination and science fiction (PDF here; print with impunity).
Here’s Frank’s glorious poster (click for PDF); his paper is below.
Procrastination is hardly a novel phenomenon, but in the digital era, it may have reached its apotheosis. Today’s Internet user is subject to a constant stream of e-mails, viral memes, addictive games, social media updates, and Wikipedia spelunking sessions. It’s raining lolcats and doges—and it would appear to be wreaking havoc with our productivity. “The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” a chart recently released by The Economist, tabulates the opportunity cost to humanity of the 140 million hours we spent watching the rapper PSY’s horse dance antics: twenty Empire State Buildings, or six Burj Khalifas, or an entire Wikipedia (“Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” 2014). No surprise, then, that many employers continue to block “time-wasting” websites such as Facebook or Twitter, or that studies have found that digital technologies are distracting to workers (R. Williams, 2014). Intriguingly, however, in combatting technological temptation, we are increasingly turning to technology itself. Some might grumble about the lack of character-building discipline this entails. But what is more interesting is what this behaviour tells us about life in the digital era.
The use of technology to prevent procrastination and encourage productivity is not new. In the 1920s, Science and Invention publisher Hugo Gernsback invented human blinders: “The Isolator”, a large helmet that restricted its user’s vision and hearing—and even supplied oxygen from an external tank to counteract drowsiness (Novak, 2013). For perhaps obvious reasons, The Isolator never quite took off. Some simpler technologies have been found more fruitful. The Pomodoro Technique, developed by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s, advocates the use of a kitchen timer (such as the common tomato-shaped variety which lent the technique its name) to break up time into blocks of twenty-five minutes of work, followed by breaks of three to five minutes (Cirillo, 2014a, 2014b). Among other techniques, David Allen’s productivity manual Getting Things Done (2002) suggests a system of forty-three folders—one for each day of the month and month of the year—to help organize physical artefacts and reminders. More unusually, Internet critic Evgeny Morozov locks his smartphone and router cable in a timer-controlled safe, allowing him to work without the distraction of the Internet (Tucker, 2013).
In the digital era, it’s not surprising that such physical approaches have been either replaced or augmented by technologies running on the very devices that seem to have exacerbated the problem of distraction. Both the Pomodoro Technique and Getting Things Done have their own mobile applications. Some word processors, such as Microsoft Word, iA Writer, and Byword, virtually mimic the narrow eye-slit of the Isolator by offering different kinds of “focus modes”—for instance, by making the application full-screen or highlighting only the line of text currently being edited. At the more extreme end of the spectrum are digital implementations of Morozov’s safe: applications such as Freedom (80Pct Solutions, 2014) and SelfControl (Stigler & Lambert, 2014) that can be used to block the Internet, entirely or in part according to customizable blacklists, for pre-specified lengths of time. Nothing short of a reboot (in the case of Freedom) or specific technical knowhow (in the case of SelfControl) can re-enable Internet access once the digital timer has been set. (Freedom features prominent authors such as Nick Hornby, Naomi Klein, and Zadie Smith amongst its admirers.)
Other technologies exist that are only possible in the digital age. The WiFi-enabled “SnūzNLūz” alarm clock threatens to punish lie-ins with automatic donations to ideologically repugnant causes via direct debit (ThinkGeek, 2014). Though the SnūzNLūz was an April Fool’s joke, the concept of pecuniary punishment of procrastination has found traction in at least two real web-based services, Beeminder (2014) and stickK (2014). These sites reward the diligent, but their very business models are essentially wagers on the fundamental idleness of their customers. A similar service, RescueTime (2014), somewhat more benignly tracks and reports on how users spend their time on their computers from day-to-day—but without the risk of penalty, except for crises of conscience.
The names and iconography of these technologies provide interesting clues to how we think of procrastination and unproductiveness. The icon for SelfControl is a skull and crossbones (“death to procrastination,” it seems to suggest); Freedom’s is a clock (“time’s running out”). When we are quite literally left to our own devices, we are incapable of focus, self control, or, ultimately, freedom: we are slaves to our appetites, thralls to unproductivity. The promise of these applications is emancipation. But, some might argue, what about the virtue of actually practicing discipline, restraint, or willpower? Rather than growing in virtue by struggling with our temptations, we are offered the easy route of clicking a button, of being constantly nudged by timers and focus modes, of fooling ourselves into work. Using extrinsic approaches to eliminate distractions altogether seems like a quick fix, a cheat. We have replaced our forty days in the wilderness, with the attendant risks (and character-building rewards), with life in a hermetically sealed room—safe and unchallenging.
I think this view is self-flagellating, for three reasons. First, it’s possible that we worry a little too much about procrastination to begin with, at least in the sense that we see it as a danger unique to the digital era. The word itself has been attested at least since the sixteenth century (“procrastination, n.,” 2014); the fable of the industrious ant and the lazy grasshopper dates to the classical era. Nor should we begrudge ourselves reasonable leisure. “[H]umanity has at least been entertained,” The Economist wryly comments on their Gangnam Style infographic (“Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style,” 2014). Though 16,000 human-years spent watching the video is an initially staggering statistic, it still means that, on average, each of the world’s seven billion inhabitants only spent 1.2 minutes of their time watching. This is hardly excessive entertainment. The Internet can be undeniably distracting; the claims it makes on our attention—possibly the last truly scarce good in the materially-wealthy West (see, for instance, Goldhaber, 1997)—can be profound; in the end, it is possibly even addictive (Young, 1998). But procrastination is not new. It is as old as work itself.
Second, the notion that we should be alarmed at using digital technology to combat distraction plays into the idea of what the sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has termed “digital dualism”—that online life is somehow separate and distinct from “real” life (2011). Digital dualist narratives also tend to depict the “real” world as somehow purer or worthier than the digital one. The problem with digital dualism, however, is that there is not really any such thing as “cyberspace.” At a very concrete level, the Internet is physically grounded; though we feel as though we are peering through our computer screens into a separate digital world, it is as real as anything else we experience. It is more profitable to think of the Internet in terms of affordances: in other words, the modalities it permits and implicitly encourages, and those it denies or discourages. To return to the issue of attention, it may well be true that Internet technologies can be especially distracting; advertising, for instance, can be more intrusive than in traditional media, with full-page takeovers and auto-playing videos. And many (otherwise) intelligent people are spending a significant amount of time and effort designing ever more attention-grabbing distractions. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” lamented former Facebook employee Jeff Hammerbacher (Vance, 2011). There is an arms race for our attention; faced with the unique challenges of Internet-related distraction, then, we should not feel bad about mustering technological weapons against the abuse of technology. We should not assume that traditional, offline techniques are better or more valid than online ones. Indeed, the proliferation of applications designed to help us focus is more an indication of ingenuity and adaptability in response to the onslaught of hard-to-avoid distractions. “Our brains are so easy to fool that it’s borderline embarrassing; you might as well salvage some self-respect by exploiting that fact,” writes the technology journalist Oliver Burkeman (2010).
Finally, we should not unnecessarily elevate the virtue of struggle. To be sure, discipline and willpower in the face of unavoidable temptation are laudable. But there is nothing unseemly—indeed there is something prudent— about avoiding temptation altogether; and thankfully, we need not take such drastic measures as St Francis of Assisi did when he flung himself into a rose bush. When we can help ourselves focus with software, coping with technological temptation by eschewing technology seems unnecessarily scrupulous. Morozov said about his safe, “It’s not that I can’t say ‘no’ to myself. I just waste too much energy having the internal conversation. I’d rather delegate the control to my safe and use my remaining willpower to get something done” (Tucker, 2013). Replying to those who ridiculed the practice, even this deeply techno-skeptical thinker said, “I have no problem with the safe, frankly. It fits very well with my vision for technology. It’s okay to delegate certain things to technology” (C. Williams, 2013). Applications such as Freedom and SelfControl do not operate autonomously. The user must still have the willpower to click the button that blocks their Internet, after all. And though that is a simple act, and is likely to be easier than exerting the full effort of our will to avoid distraction, it is not without virtue (Millgram, 2010).
In sum, then, we shouldn’t castigate ourselves for marshalling what defences we can against distraction, when it does indeed transition from reasonable entertainment to compulsive procrastination. Instead, it is worth pondering what our use of technology contra technology tells us about life in the digital age. It suggests that though distraction and procrastination are nothing new, the affordances of Internet-enabled computing—the near-ubiquitous connectivity, the malleability of web content, the steady stream of notifications—can exacerbate the problem; but other affordances—“distraction-free” modes, the ability to cleanly, easily, and reversibly sever our Internet connections—can similarly help us fight it. Another factor is that we now find ourselves enjoying entertainment on the same device we use for work. This can be undeniably problematic when, for instance, we spend too much time on YouTube rather than programming, researching, writing, or performing other work that is temporarily painful but ultimately satisfying.
But this convergence of uses actually points to another idea. The era of always-on Internet encourages us to actually reassess the idea of procrastination itself. The Silicon Valley venture capitalist Paul Graham writes, “No matter what you work on, you’re not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well” (2005). In fact, one study suggests that some kinds of “cyberloafing” might actually boost productivity (Academy of Management, 2014). Social media, Wikipedia, and online news are not necessarily “good” procrastination—but they should not automatically be considered bad, either. These activities can strengthen social ties, encourage learning, and invite serendipitous innovation just as much as they can distract us from the more important tasks at hand. Some work profits from long blocks of steady concentration, and for such times, we have applications such as Freedom and SelfControl—or safes. But having information readily available can also be a boon. The novelist Ned Beauman, though himself an avid user of Internet-blocking applications, nevertheless says the Internet is “Inextricably part of my method. [...] I don’t consider Wikipedia a distraction; I find it really useful. Most of the time you’re learning something” (Wilkinson, 2012). What we should encourage is not a complete disconnection from technology to avoid procrastination, nor a condemnation of the Internet as an inherently procrastinatory medium, but rather a contextual approach—aided, when appropriate, by technology itself—that enables us to work when we need to, and surf when we don’t.
Frank Hangler is an MSc student at the Oxford Internet Institute, interested in big data, smart cities, and the rhetoric of technology. He has several years of professional experience in design and development. He holds a BA (Honours) in Political Science and a Bachelor of Computer Science, both from the University of British Columbia.
[Links active as of 13 June 2014]
80Pct Solutions. (2014). Freedom – Internet Blocking Productivity Software.
Academy of Management. (2014). Internet browsing at work? It’s a pause that refreshes workers and enhances their productivity, new research finds.
Allen, D. (2002). Getting Things Done. London: Piatkus.
Beeminder. (2014). Beeminder.
Burkeman, O. (2010). This column will change your life: Is self-discipline the key to success? The Guardian.
Cirillo, F. (2014a). Frequently Asked Questions. The Pomodoro Technique.
Cirillo, F. (2014b). Get Started. The Pomodoro Technique.
Daily chart: The hidden cost of Gangnam Style. (2014). The Economist.
Goldhaber, M. H. (1997, April 7). The attention economy and the Net. First Monday.
Graham, P. (2005). Good and Bad Procrastination.
Jurgenson, N. (2011). Digital Dualism versus Augmented Reality. Cyborgology.
Millgram, E. (2010). Virtue for Procrastinators. In The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. Oxford University Press.
Novak, M. (2013). Thinking Cap: A Helmet That Seals Out External Sounds and Sights. Pacific Standard.
procrastination, n. (2014). OED Online.
RescueTime. (2014). RescueTime: Time management software for staying productive and happy in the modern workplace.
StickK. (2014). stickK − Change Starts Now.
Stigler, C., & Lambert, S. (2014). SelfControl.
ThinkGeek. (2014). SnūzNLūz – Wifi Donation Alarm Clock.
Vance, A. (2011). This Tech Bubble Is Different. Businessweek.
Wilkinson, C. (2012). Shutting out a world of digital distraction. The Telegraph.
Williams, C. (2013). Google is run by adolescents, says Evgeny Morozov. The Telegraph.
Williams, R. (2014). Internet “fuels procrastination and lowers productivity.” The Telegraph.
Young, K. S. (1998). Internet Addiction: The Emergence of a New Clinical Disorder. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 1(3), 237–244. doi:10.1089/cpb.1998.1.237
So to the first of our Mañanarama exhibits.
The idea for the Ostrich pillow-helmet originated in Spain, and the joy of library siestas. Designed by Key Portilla-Kawamura and Ali Ganjavian of Studio Banana, and crowd-funded through Kickstarter, it promises naps cocooned from external noise and the mocking laughter of passers-by.
Despite making the wearer look like the awkward lovechild of the Scarecrow and Admiral Ackbar, the original hand-crafted Ostrich retails at £64.99—and has been featured in every outlet from Glamour to the Financial Times.
‘Power-napping improves productivity by 34%,’ promise the Ostrich’s creators. ‘Metamorphose into a walking bulb of garlic,’ say others.