We regret that one of our speakers, Katrina Mayson (on Elizabeth Bishop), is no longer able to attend tomorrow’s session.

accessories-text-editorNonetheless, we look forward to welcoming the last speaker of the term, the artist and academic Dr Bill Prosser (Oxford) on ‘Drawing—it’s a drag‘. See you, as usual, at 5.30pm in the Old Library, All Souls College for a glass of wine and some stimulating conversation.

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Vince Crawford, ‘Now or Later?’

vince procrastinationThanks 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 Procrastination Seminar: your handy printout guide

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.)

 

Procrastination Seminar MT2014 small

The Procrastination Seminar speakers

CLOCK LOGO autumn-01After frantic last-minute negotiations, we’re delighted to unveil the provisional line-up for this term’s five sessions in the Procrastination Seminar.

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 crawford15 OctoberProfessor Vince Crawford, ‘Now or later? Present-bias and time-inconsistency in intertemporal choice’

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’

diane purkiss‘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.

John McManus29 OctoberJohn 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.

20140312_220600-004Tamara 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.

10624794_380127925483732_8954905304583990697_n5 November: Huw Lemmey (LimaZulu), ‘IT’S OK TO HATE YOUR JOB: digital procrastination as proletarian sabotage’  

Huw is an artist, cultural commentator, and sometime Guardian contributor. He tweets with terrifying fecundity @spitzenprodukte.

downingArthur 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.

The New York Times on Procrastination Oxford

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.

 

How to Stop Time

St Expeditus, image from Catholic.org

St Expeditus, image from Catholic.org

“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?

CLOCK LOGO 2

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.

walter benjamin biscuit

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.

photo (19)

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.

The 2 July procrastination-fest: a summary

This summary also appeared on the ever-interesting blog of one of our sponsors, the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing.

Procrastination: Cultural Explorations
2 July 2014
Wolfson College, Oxford

The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)

Frontispiece of Anthony Walker’s The Great Evil of Procrastination (1682)

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.

The economic approach

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.

Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification

Homer Simpson, icon of immediate gratification

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.

Procrastination, creativity, and form

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.

Resisting demonization

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.

Historically specific or human universal?

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.

Self-Help

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

Samuel Smiles’ Victorian bestseller, Self-Help (1859)

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.’

Mañanarama

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.

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter, from the personal collection of Tracey Potts

Walter Benjamin biscuit cutter, from the personal collection of Tracey Potts

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.

You can see the full paper, along with other exhibits, here.

Questions left to ponder

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.

Cutting the Cord

 

We’re delighted to present Frank Hangler’s ‘Cutting the Cord’, winner of the 2014 Cunctator Prize, as generously judged by Henry Hardy and Mark Pottle of the Isaiah Berlin Literary Trust.

Here’s Frank’s glorious poster (click for PDF); his paper is below.

hangler-procrastination-poster

 

Cutting the Cord: technology as the source of (and solution to?) procrastination

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).

The Isolator in action, via A Great Disorder

The Isolator in action, via A Great Disorder

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.

Beeminder and RescueTime logos

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.

SelfControl logo

SelfControl logo

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.

Psy: 'hardly excessive entertainment'

Psy: ‘hardly excessive entertainment’

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).

Evgeny Morozov, by re:publica

Evgeny Morozov, by re:publica

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.

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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.

 

References

[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.

pomodoro techniqueCirillo, 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.

Tucker, I. (2013). Evgeny Morozov: “We are abandoning all the checks and balances.” The Guardian.

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

Coming Soon: conference highlights

audioplayerOver the next few weeks, we hope to provide audio highlights from the Procrastination: Cultural Explorations conference held on 2 July. Remember, the conversation will continue with our seminar series from October.

To whet your appetite, you can hear our contributor Pelle Valentin Olsen (Oxford) discussing idleness and Baghdad coffee shops on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed—along with the political history of surfing.

And in the meantime, we’ll be sharing some of the artefacts from the Mañanarama exhibition that followed the conference…

 

The Telegraph on Procrastination Oxford

The ever-interesting author and critic Jane Shilling provided a rather lovely take on our conference on 2 July for today’s Telegraph. See below—or click here for the original.

 

The Precious Art of Procrastination

Jane Shilling visits the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing to explore procrastination, infamous as being the scourge of creative types

broken alarm clockTo Oxford, that humming hive of academic endeavour and fantastical far-niente, for a cultural exploration of procrastination convened by the Oxford Centre for Life-Writing.

Procrastination is notoriously the scourge of creative types, schoolchildren and journalists. Its patron saints are Dr Johnson, frantically scribbling as the printer’s boy waited to snatch the sheets with the ink still wet upon them; Cyril Connolly, morosely cataloguing the sombre impediments to good art (the pram in the hall, the blue bugloss of journalism, the charlock of sex, the slimy mallows of success, etc) while scoffing gulls’ eggs and failing to write a good novel; and Douglas Adams, the modern virtuoso of procrastination, who cheerily admitted that “I love deadlines, I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

The sacraments of procrastination are coffee, Red Bull, Pro-Plus and a lurid spectrum of less innocent stimulants. Its ceremonies are the missed deadline, the specious excuse and the exasperated riposte of the schoolmaster and editor. (I find there is something strangely comforting—even addictive—about the increasingly desperate enquiries of my editors as to when I might eventually file my copy. I tend to reply in the immortal words of Captain Jack Aubrey’s rebarbative steward Killick. Questioned as to the whereabouts of the Captain’s eagerly awaited dinner, he remarked dourly, “Which it will be ready when it is ready”.)

If procrastination were merely an example of what the Greeks termed akrasia—the habit of acting against one’s better judgment—it would be of compelling interest to philosophers and psychologists, but its role in artistic endeavour would be essentially that of the bad fairy at the christening. Happily, when it comes to creativity, procrastination has the mysterious homeopathic quality of being both poison and cure, inspiration and inhibitor.

The OCLW’s procrastination blog (at ProcrastinationOxford.org) offers a picaresque tour of the procrastinatory horizon, taking in such monuments of the art of stylish cunctation as the flâneur—the 19th-century embodiment of idleness evoked (and personified) by the poet Baudelaire. In his essay, The Painter of Modern Life, Baudelaire described the flâneur, strolling the city streets in purposeful aimlessness: “The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd.”

For the Situationist Guy Debord, strolling was a political act. “La dérive”, or drifting, defined as an unplanned journey through an urban landscape, was a medium both of authentic engagement with the “distinct psychic atmospheres” of the city, and a ludic subversion of the grinding monotony of advanced capitalism.

“Ne travaillez jamais”, Debord scrawled on the wall of the rue de Seine in 1953, and it was a maxim to which he adhered throughout his life (a martyr to the effects of lifelong alcoholism, he shot himself in 1994). A visitor to the Debord household observed that Mme Debord seemed to get very little help with the housework. “She does the dishes,” Debord explained. “I do the revolution.”

The fuzzy boundary between work and idleness was a leitmotif of the conference, with papers on “Idle Days in Baghdad: The emergence of bourgeois time and the coffee shop as a site of procrastination”, and the Egyptian novelist, Albert Cossery’s poitics of laziness. Cossery, who remarked that he wrote “only when I have nothing better to do”, produced eight novels in 60 years, written mostly at the Café de Flore, an establishment to which he once turned up in a wheelchair pushed by a beautiful blonde, still wearing the pyjamas of the hospital from which he had just fled.

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!”

So seductive a subject could scarcely be despatched in a single day. The conversation continues next term at a Procrastination Seminar, to be held on Wednesdays at 5.30pm in the Old Library at All Souls. Further details are said (appropriately enough) to be “coming soon”.

The big day

CLOCK LOGO 2At long last, today we’re delighted to welcome our wonderful speakers to Oxford for a day of procrastinatory conversation.

For those of you unable to be here, keep your eyes on the website for content from the conference—as well as announcements about our autumn 2014 seminar series…