How to Stop Procrastinating and Being Seen as a Bore : An Interview with Dr. Toohey

An Interview with professor and author Dr. Peter Toohey, on the ins and outs of being seen as a bore and procrastinating.

Peter Toohey, Ph.D., is now a professor at the University of Calgary but his career as a professor initially started in his native country of Australia. Dr. Toohey’s publications and research has mainly been based on his interest in nature and the history of emotions. In particular he is the author of Jealousy and Boredom: A Lively History. With several works of literature under his belt, he has also served as an editor for a few literary works as well. For more information on his works you can visit Yale University Press. You can also read more of his work on Psychology Today through his blog Annals of the Emotions.

Getting to Know Dr. Toohey

Before you began teaching at the University of Calgary, were there any other professions you dreamed of entering?

Before I started teaching here at the University of Calgary I did the same sort of thing in my native Australia. I can’t really say that I dreamed of anything in particular. Like so many people I eased slowly into what I now do and began to understand why I like and value it as I went on.

Why did you decide to study the classics and become a professor in that field?

I believe that reasons I had for trying to learn about Greece and Rome when I was young are not the same as the ones that I have now.

I think, however, that most people who study the distant past greatly value a sense of belonging to and having a voice and an existence, however small, that is part of a very long human continuity.

Have you always been interested in exploring the concepts of nature and history of the emotions?

Yes, I think I have, though it took me some time to realize that this subject was respectable enough to work on. I became interested in boredom, particularly, and I wondered why there is so much said about it now, but why there is so very little said about it in the ancient world. Was it because they weren’t bored? Was it because they thought it was such a common experience that it wasn’t worth talking about? Was it because their languages lacked an accurate term for the experience? (It feels like accurate terms for various emotions come late in the development of languages.) I’ve tried to look at the same thing with other emotions, experiences, and emotional registers such as depression, love, jealousy, time, mental disabilities, disability itself, and so on. I believe that you can learn a lot from the similarities and contrast between the experiences of the past and of the present.

Interview Q & A

Dr. Toohey, do you believe that as humans we all have an innate sense to put things off in life?
Yes, I think we do. Nearly every one that I know and get along with tends to put things off. Most people procrastinate a lot. There are a few who are either so organized or so ambitious that they never procrastinate. But most of us aren’t like that. Perhaps most humans are reasonably lazy and what they put off are things that are not always pleasant – or things that they can get away with putting off for a time, such as vacuuming the house or cleaning the toilets.

In his book on procrastination (The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, 2012) John Perry likes to talk of “creative procrastination”. This means that you put off as long as possible the things that can be put off, so that you can do those terrifying things that have to be done right here and now. I made the mistake of telling one of my classes about his idea. I had a lot of requests that term for essay extensions claiming “creative procrastination” as their excuse. How could I argue with that when I first told them about it? Creative procrastination is a good way to go about doing things, but it doesn’t make you a favorite person of the deadline setters.

Do you think the need or desire to procrastinate comes from a fear of the unknown?
I am sure you’re right. But lots of us procrastinate with simple and well-known challenges such as, for example, paying our credit cards on time. There is nothing unknown here. Paying credit card bills is easy to do and usually, though not always, you have enough money to pay off at least the monthly minimum. Yet lots of us still procrastinate. And you know what will happen. Eventually the credit card company calls you up, demands payment, and savages your credit rating. Yet good and sensible and likable people commit this dangerous version of procrastination every month. They know quite well what the outcome will be. Why do we do it? See the next question, for some guesses.

In your article titled “Tired of Putting Things Off, and of Being Seen as a Bore?” it explores how some technology companies are trying to combat the all too common issue of being a habitual procrastinator. Why do you think some people procrastinate so much more than others?

The two watches that I speak of in my little article are designed to help you avoid procrastination. They try to remind you often about how short human life is and, perhaps therefore, of the need to “seize the day”, as the Roman poet, Horace said 2100 years ago. On the the Tikker, or “death watch,” “the top row of the watch’s digital display shows years, months and days, while the second row counts down hours, minutes and seconds. The bottom row shows the local time.” The top two rows tell you how long you’ve got till you’ll die. (You fill out a life expectancy chart before you set the clock going.) The second clock is called “28” and it takes its name from the 28,000 days that are, approximately, the number of days in the average human life span of 76 years. The “28” noisily reminds you, as you wake each day, of how many of your 28,000 days are still waiting.

The idea behind both of these clocks is that procrastination is a failure of the will, or even a moral failing. The watches will strengthen your moral fiber in the same way as going to church is said to. Maybe this is true for some people for some of the time, but I am not so sure that it will work. I find that the gloomier I get – perhaps I should be more honest and say that the more depressed I get – the more I am inclined to procrastinate. How can you kindle a flame from ashes? I’m not alone in believing that there’s a link between procrastination and depression, even minor depression. But there is another contributor as well that’s got nothing to do with moral fiber. One thing that is common to a lot of procrastination is fear of failure. If you go ahead and finish the novel you’ve dreamt of writing and it’s no good and you can’t get a publisher, how do you feel then? You really are likely to experience a very strong sense of failure. So why not procrastinate? Leave the novel till tomorrow. Tell people about it by all means, but don’t do it. Sometimes it’s just easier not to confront things and to avoid failure by avoiding things altogether. I mean, you can’t fail if you don’t do it, can you?

I know that you mentioned in your article that you have a “penchant for procrastination,” do you feel as though that is what motivated you to write this particular topic? If not what was your motivation for writing this piece?

Yes, I only write about things that worry me or that cause me pain. (Why else would you want to write anything that you are not being paid for?) I always hope that I am normal enough that what worries me worries plenty of other people and that, for this reason, those other people may be interested in reading what I write. Believe me, this is mostly not the case. I wish this were not so. So, yes, I wrote about procrastination, because I often have bouts of severe procrastination. Putting this into words makes me feel less of a reprobate. I hope that it makes others, who suffer from the same infirmity, feel that they are not alone and they too are not reprobates.

The electronics you mentioned were unheard of for me until I came across your article. Now let’s say someone decided to combine all of the functions of these devices into one, do you think then it would actually help people live their life to the fullest, take more chances and be perceived as more interesting?
No, I really don’t. Maybe this is what a procrastinator would say. My answer to this is in my response to the next question.

Although you mentioned the possibility of your being “pessimistic” of the effectiveness of these gadgets, do you believe that if products such as the MIT, Tikker, and “28” were more publicized to the general public that people would really procrastinate less or be less boring?

I am pessimistic. That’s why I mentioned Trimalchio’s clock. It shows up in the Roman novel called the Satyricon. It was written by Petronius, 2000 odd years ago. At the beginning of the central section of this novel we learn that, in the millionaire Trimalchio’s dining room, you’ll find a clock (maybe a water-clock). It tells how much life Trimalchio has left and urges him to get going and stop procrastinating. Next to the water clock stands a well-dressed trumpeter who lets forth regular horn blasts that notify the millionaire how much remains of his thirty years, four months and two days. That was two millennia ago and we are still trying to invent and market clocks to do the same sort of thing. That says something about the futility of the exercise of trying to shift mood through timepieces.

I read a review of a book this week (Simon Garfield’s Timekeepers: How the World Became Obsessed with Time) that apparently has a lot to say about many more gadgets than I covered. Garfield describes one possible watch called the Cyclops. It doesn’t have a minute hand. Simon Garfield seems to think a watch like this would help people manage time better. They’d focus on the bigger picture and not on the minutiae. Would a watch like this help people break free from routine – which clocks may enforce on us? Who knows? It didn’t seem to work for Trimalchio.

As for getting a gadget that will make you less of a bore: maybe we should be less ashamed of embracing our inner bore. Leland Carlson wrote a humorous book called Dull Men of Great Britain that tries to do just that. Here is a link to my review of it.

So based off of your concluding statements it appears that you are not quite a fan of gadgets such as MIT, Tikker and “28”, so if there were a device designed to help us be more productive and more interesting human beings, what functionalities would you include in it?

I don’t think that they’ll work. But the wrist band that warns you when you are becoming boring might be more useful than the procrastination watches. (This “bore watch”, designed by a team from the MIT, has sensors to the wearer’s “heart rate, blood pressure, blood flow, temperature and movement.” It can even make “audio recordings to analyze pitch, energy levels and vocabulary.” The MIT team reckons that these signals can “differentiate between happy, sad and neutral, but some versions could also tell whether your delivery is boring or awkward.”) Being a bore is easy and we all love the sound of our own voices (listen to me now) and we all enjoying sharing our predictable wisdom. Something that would vibrate in your pocket when you’ve been rabbiting on too long would be welcomed by most of our acquaintances. Keeping your mouth shut more is one way to be less boring. I can talk!

It appears that in this day and time everyone is looking for a quick fix through an app or some form of technology. What do you suggest for people looking to naturally be less of a bore and refrain from putting things off

If I could answer this one, I truly would not have written the article. However: I wonder if it is possible to address the fear of failure. Perhaps a tattoo some place discreet would help. Put it in small letters on the inside of your wrist and it could say something aspirational like “Failure is not all that it’s cracked up to be”. You could stress the positive side of failure. Anything that plays down anxiety will surely help. How do you avoid being a bore? See my previous response.

I wonder if the very best thing might be for people to stop feeling so guilty about being procrastinators?

Does anyone really feel guilt about procrastination? Shame maybe, because you’re inevitably confronted by someone who is badly affected by your lack of decisiveness. But not guilt. Or regret, because your procrastination can bounce back and harm you (you put off doing your taxes and then you’re fined and humiliated). But regret is not guilt. Maybe if we were more honest with ourselves and confessed to not feeling guilty at all, then things would be better. But that is not going to solve the problem of shame and regret. This is where John Perry’s creative procrastination comes in. Put off what you can as long as you can, perhaps, but don’t put off what will cause you regret. And don’t go getting depressed. But that’s easy to say, isn’t it.

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  1. I’m as much a procrastinator as the next person. I was surprised to hear, that this problem apparently already existed in ancient rome! I was wondering if there was a evolutionary explanation / theory on why people procrastinate? If it, a long time ago, increased your chances of survival? Or does this just play into the selfish nature of humans?

  2. It is a relief to realize that procrastination has been an age-old vice of humanity – dating back centuries, if not millennia. One concern I have with the article is that the short introduction seems redundant, because there are three questions dedicated to ‘getting to know’ the interviewee, Dr. Toohey. The answers to these questions are summarized in the introduction, making these introductory questions – or the introduction, depending on how you may wish to see it – seem superfluous, or unnecessary.
    The rest of the article is very informative, and does highlight humanity’s issues with procrastination, and how a remainder of how much time we have left may not motivate us to do more. However, one question which I would like to be answered is the emotional factor behind procrastination – especially the link between depression and procrastination, or mental illness and procrastination.

  3. It was refreshing to read an article that said most people procrastinate – even those people who seem on top of everything. And an interesting point made that I always think about is boredom and such in past times. Were people simply always busy, or what? It’s interested me that topics such as that aren’t found in information from the past.
    I had never heard of these clocks, and I don’t think those would work for me. It’s a little morbid, and I think it would scare me closer to my death.
    I also have the same question as Alice, but I was wondering if it had to do with avoiding unpleasantness? That is an understandable natural reaction, I think, but I wouldn’t know.

  4. I really like how the article begins with a quick intro to who Dr Toohey is and what drives him. It helps readers connect with the interviewee.
    The questions very well sum up what everyone really wants to know about procrastination. Right from wondering about why we do it, to discussing how we can overcome it, the questions provide a strong framework for discovering procrastination and boredom.
    The interesting bit is the discussion on gadgets and apps that are devised to keep you from procrastinating or being boring. As someone who didn’t have the faintest idea about these gadgets, this particular section added a lot of informative value to the whole interview.
    The interview neatly wraps up with some food-for-thought about how one can emotionally handle being a procrastinator, something that almost everyone struggles with.

  5. The interviewer did a good job of explaining the background of the interviewee and familiarizing him to the audience. The overall interview was decent as well, however the responses given by Dr. Toohey seemed a bit wordy at a few points. It may be beneficial for the writer to paraphrase some responses. There’s also a point in the interview where the interviewer asks a question, but it’s not bolded. This may seem a bit minor, but it kind of threw me off. As for the content, the viewpoint of this article on procrastination was very interesting and quite different than how most people view it. Dr. Toohey seems to “humanize” procrastination and shows that it’s a characteristic of human nature rather than shaming those who procrastinate. The technology aspect also piqued my interest. I’ve honestly never considered using technology to help with my procrastination(except maybe timers and apps that block certain webpages), and the clock that counts down how many days left in a human life seems very intriguing. In theory, it would seem to work, but I’m not too sure how it would affect procrastination. I feel like in some ways it would just discourage people rather than motivate them, but that of course varies from person to person. I also like how the writer mentioned that many people are looking for a “quick fix” to procrastination, because it brings up how humans always try and find a quick fix to many issues. For example, many people go on fad diets or detoxes to lose weight rapidly, but then soon gain all the weight back. Losing weight requires diligence, effort, and persistence just like any issue to overcome. I feel like if people treated procrastination as step by step process, it would be much easier to become more productive.

  6. I really enjoyed this article, I think this is one of my favorite interview articles, so far that I’ve read. This is such a great topic to have approached because I think it’s in everyone’s general interest on why we procrastinate and how to reduce it. The intro starting off a bit more in depth about Dr. Toohey was a really nice touch! Really well done on that. It made me get a bit more understanding of him and why he got into this career before just going straight to the questions and answers of “what do you think of this?” and “why do you think that is?” I do think majority of people will always procrastinate for whatever reasons, and I admired that Dr. Toohey himself was very honest in saying he doesn’t even truly understand the reasonings behind it.

  7. Procrastination is always a fascinating topic. This interview was sublime, it was in depth, easy to read, rather interesting and asked some amazing questions. I particularly liked the question on any quick fixes for procrastination. I was wondering, however, if there were cognitive explanations on why we procrastinate, is it simply because we just get distracted? Or is there a relationship between procrastination and mental states, such as anxiety?

  8. I enjoyed this interview, and the title really caught my attention since I am a notorious procrastinator at times. I was also intrigued to find out how being boring related to being a procrastinator so I was really motivated to read this article.

    The article was very informative, and the links provided allowed the reader to obtain further background on what was being discussed with Dr.Toohey. I enjoyed the brief background on Dr. Toohey, but I would suggest some minor revisions since it reads as if the reader already has background on him at times. An example is when it mentions that he studies the classics. It would be helpful to maybe expand upon what the classics consist of before having it addressed in the following question.

    As mentioned before I enjoyed that the article that provided background information on main topic of this particular article was linked for the reader incase they would like to get further information . Something that may need to be considered is explaining the concept of the various watches earlier in the article.An example is that the boredom watch was not explained until the near end, but it was introduced earlier which could cause confusion if the linked article had not been read before.

    The last revision that I would suggest deals with some of the wording of the answers. At times it would seem like the interview was conducted in written form, but then Dr. Toohey mentions talking. To help resolve this misinterpretation I think that the tense used within the answers should be more consistent. The formating of what the author says verses Dr. Toohey could use some revision as well to help better identify a topic change within an answer.

    Overall I think that the author did a good job of getting the reader interested through the title, and keeping them engaged throughout the information that Dr.Toohey had to provide on the topic of procrastination.

  9. This was a really good article ! I totally agree with Dr Toohey when he thinks that tools giving you “negative” feedback on your procrastination would maybe not help you. I have seen some people succeeding by doing the contrary : rewarding themselves when they don’t procrastinate. Maybe that’s a better way to look at it ?
    But indeed, there is no magical answer, as we do not know yet how it even works exactly.