Genesis of the Procrastinators

I fail to see the evolutionary advantage of procrastination.

The bulk of human behaviour can be traced to an evolutionary advantage at some point in the past, even if it's one that no longer applies. Wanting to gorge oneself on carbohydrate and sugar rich food? Yes, an advantage in times of scarcity. Xenophobia? Repugnant these days but undeniably an advantage in days when you and the tribe in the next valley were competing for the same food source. Love? But of course, love leads to sex and sex leads to children; miniature copies of yourself to act as vessels which will carry your DNA down the road of time into the future.

There's no intent here, it's all cold mathematics. Those people who were greedy / xenophobic / loving simply survived marginally better than those that weren't, with the result that the world now consists of us, their descendants. And rather annoyingly we now have to unpick all that instinct because some of it is quite clearly a supernormal stimulus and other parts of it are morally wrong.

Strictly speaking the bulk of our behaviour should be explicable in these terms, automatic responses reinforced by survival. And looking at it a lot of it is and even things that aren't are revealed under analysis to be the mutant descendants of once advantageous anthropological functions.

But procrastination? How on Earth did that evolve?
It turned out that Thugg the Caveman didn't die after all; he was lucky. Just as the leopard was poised to sink its teeth and claws into the soft flesh of his belly a meteorite struck it clear between the eyes and it collapsed to the ground, dead with a smoking hole in its skull.

Thugg stood up shakily and regarded the carcass of his erstwhile enemy. Up on top of the ridge his colleagues whooped and shrieked with chimpanic glee. None of them yet believed in god; the mental disorder that would one day become religion not yet being that widespread in the population, and yet Thugg's miraculous escape seemed almost uncanny.

Thugg grabbed the leopard by the tail and begun towing it back to the caves. Strictly speaking it was his "kill" and so it was up to him to skin and gut it, distributing the meat to those of the tribe that he saw fit and thereafter wearing the pelt as a badge of honour that he would one day pass on to his descendants should any of the women ever want to do the wriggly lying down dance with him often enough for them to have children.

Still, with a leopard-pelt his standing in the tribe might well increase. He dragged the carcass up the rocky slope to his batchelor cave and dumped it at the back behind the rock shaped like an elephant's knee. He'd skin it in the morning. He was too tired now. He lay down on the pile of dried plants and squirrel tails and almost instantly fell into a dreamless sleep.

Early the next morning he awoke with a start to the sight of an unusual shape silhouetted in the cave mouth. Shrieking, he jumped up and grabbed his club although as it turned out the noise of his terror had already done the trick. The hyaena was running for its life and was already disappearing into the pre-dawn gloom. Thugg stretched, walked to the entrance and peed over the lip of the cave. The trickle of urine ran down a well-carved channel in the rock face and eventually dripped over the lintel of Old Bugga's cave and into a puddle. Old Bugga had never been able to work out where the puddle came from and why it was there even during the dry season, but never one to look a gift eohippus in the mouth he tended to use it to wash his feet when he came home in the evening.
Thugg wandered back to his makeshift nest. The hyaena had obviously been attracted by the smell of the dead leopard; the sooner he got it skinned and distributed the better. First thing in the morning, he told himself before losing consciousness again.

The tribe didn't give names to the days of the week, but when Thugg woke again it felt like a Saturday. The sun was already high, its light streaming throughout the cave mouth and he knew that he had a busy day ahead of him dealing with the leopard. And he would be doing it very shortly.

But first he needed to stretch his legs. He strolled down to the news cave and spent half an hour reading the wall paintings depicting the activities of the tribe over the past week. OK, so he already knew most of it, but it was comforting and reassuring to see it depicted there in ochre and grey. And look, there was a picture of him dragging the leopard back to his cave. The leopard. He'd really have to get back and get started on it soon; it felt like it was going to be another hot one and they all knew how quickly meat could spoil in this heat. But maybe he'd do the Sudughku first.

An hour later Thugg was standing by the spring chatting with Yugg about his plans for the leopard carcass. Or at least that's what he was trying to do, but Yugg kept steering the conversation back to the problems he was having with his aunt Grukka, which Thugg found very frustrating. Eventually he managed to extract himself from the firing line of Yugg's monologue with the excuse that he really had to get on with slicing up that leopard.

Two hours later he was in the cave working hard on his iCork, the scrap of tree bark he kept with the icons scratched on it. He was sure that there was a better way of arranging the icons to make the whole thing more efficient. He glanced towards the back of the cave. The leopard's dead eyes regarded him accusingly. He really should get on with it. The sooner I start, the sooner I finish, he thought, inventing painfully obvious aphorisms.

Ten minutes later he was squatting next to the furry body regarding his flint knife. It really wasn't very sharp. If he was going to make the best job of it, he really needed to sharpen it. There was no point waiting around for the Iron Age.

Eventually the knife was sharp enough to satisfy his rather exacting standards. The problem now was that the sun had moved round and it was difficult to see. He could of course have taken the carcass outside and begun butchering it, but that might have attracted an audience and an audience always put him off. Best to leave it to the next morning. Besides, a group of them were planning on going down to the grove of apple trees later. According to Nugg a load of rotten old apples had apparently collected in a gully where they had turned into a noxious sludge which, if you squeezed it into a coconut shell, produced a potent liquid which made you go insane and fall over sideways when you drank it. Cider, Nugg called it.

Thugg woke the next morning with a pounding headache. He had a vague memory of waking in the night, running to the cave mouth and vomiting onto the heads of a couple of hyaenas that were trying to sneak in whist he was asleep.

The leopard's eyes stared glassily at him, a fly crawling over one of them. Thugg rolled over in his nest and frowned. There was no way he was going to start work on it today. Best to wait until he was feeling better...

A week later Thugg's cave stank to high heaven and and he was eventually forced to drag the rotting carcass out to the swamp and dump in in a sinkhole. The pelt was unusable. He'd failed to gain the respect he'd hoped for and furthermore people were now laughing at him. He seemed to have gained a bad reputation. None of the women would want to do the lying down wriggling dance with him now; the genes of Thugg would not be passed on...
None of this explains how procrastination arose; in fact this rather common sense tale implies it should tend to disappear from the population at large. It's all very puzzling, and even in modern psychological circles it's a poorly understood disorder. Incidentally, I am not passing judgment here. I am just as bad as, if not worse than, the next person when it comes to putting off until tomorrow what I should be doing today.

However I am pleased to say that I did recently discover one way of forcing myself to get on with it and furthermore actually finish what I started. Apparently it all comes down to tomatoes...

Well not exactly. The trick is called the Pomodoro Technique. I realise by blogging about this I run the risk of sounding like a gullible mark proselytizing a dodgy self-help procedure, but not only does it actually work, it does not require you to buy anything. I suspect the secret of its success lies in its simplicity.

Once you have decided on the procrastination-prone task you're going to tackle you should set an automatic timer to ring in twenty five minutes time (the kind of timer doesn't matter but the original one used was a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato, hence the name). Work on the task until the timer rings. Set the timer for five minutes and during that five minutes take a break. When the timer rings again, set it for another twenty five minute period (or "pomodoro") and so on and so forth. After four "pomodori" take a longer break of half an hour or so.

And it really works for me. Much as I get the urge to procrastinate during the twenty five minute segments I know that I can't because the clock is ticking. During my five minute breaks I can reward myself by going to the toilet or looking at Twitter, but during each pomodoro the task is sacrosanct.

Of course it really helps that there's an app for it...


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