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 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. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/annals-the-emotions/201604/celebrating-the-ordinary-the-advantages-being-dull
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.