I've been struggling with procrastination for a while now, and I think I have a bit more insight into the mattter now.
I just finished reading Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works. It's an overview of what we know about the workings of the mind so far. The parts I found most interesting were about looking at human emotions from an evolutionary psychology perspective.
At one point, Pinker discusses the different attitudes men and women have toward sex. Men are more promiscuously minded because they lose little and gain much by impregnating as many women as possible. On the other hand, child-bearing is a big investment for women, so they are picky about finding a man who is willing to help raise the child. These are the instincts that evolution gave our foraging ancestors over the course of millions of years.
This sort of research is often controversial, as you might imagine. Pinker thus repeatedly points out the importance of separating science and morality. If something turns out to be "natural", that does not necessarily mean it's good. We should not use science to justify morality, and we should not use morality to deny scientific results.
That's a really important lesson, I think. For instance, just because men have a tendency to want sex with many different women doesn't mean we should necessarily give in to those impulses. Likewise, just because the tendency has negative consequences doesn't make it unnatural, and it doesn't mean the researchers are misogynists trying to justify their sexism. The whole point is that the explanation is not an excuse in the first place.
If it's not to excuse male piggishness, then what is the purpose of the research? Well, apart from pure scientific curiosity, I think that better understanding of our nature can show us where we need to double our efforts. If a married man has a wandering eye, he may now have a better idea of what to fight against.
When two groups of people have conflicting interests, violence is a very "natural" way of resolving things. Again, that doesn't mean it's right, but it does mean we can use what we understand about game theory and group conflict psychology to struggle for peace. As Pinker points out, telling people to "smile on your brother" just isn't enough. Peace does not come naturally.
(Tania is doing exactly this kind of research in Northern Ireland. She's studying the interaction of Catholic and Protestant children over Internet chatrooms to better understand the nature of intergroup conflict.)
And then he talks about something very personal to me. Pinker discusses our tendency to seek immediate gratification when we know that patience would benefit us in the long run. His explanation is that our ancestors' lives were shorter, and the future was less predictable. Thus, immediate gratification often was the better gamble.
So what does this mean? It means that we all have this tendency, so I might perhaps have a slightly overdeveloped sense of immediate gratification, causing me to procrastinate more. Of course, I shouldn't just call myself "naturally weak-willed" and give up. Nor should I nebulously "try harder" to "just work". What it means is that there is a specific psychological mechanism that I'm fighting, and I need to be smart about fighting it. If my brain is seeing delayed gratification as a sucker's bet, then I need to artificially manipulate the game. I need to find ways of convincing my brain to do the right thing.
Pinker may have explained my procrastination, but he hasn't excused it. Now it's up to me to put that explanation to good use.