Harvesting an educational utopia

Believing in the power of education is probably the greatest utopia of our time. According to Thomas More, this power has nothing to do with formal learning but should rather be regarded as a model of continuing education irrespective of age — A free, practical education, based on the interests of the individual, that aims to make a person capable rather than to convey a set of notions. More’s belief – that most people are schooled but few are educated – is well-known. Education requires the right setting. H-FARM is located 10 minutes from Venice airport. We are progressing, overlooking a lagoon, and a city, where, for more than 1,000 years, people have gazed afar, envisioning themselves as an economic might at the heart of a market directly linked to the East. It was a utopia, and yet, they succeeded.

H-FARM’s new campus is anything but a “non-place.” It’s quite real, set amidst a countryside facing Venice with its extreme and even harmonious physicality: it provides answers. It focuses on the wealth of knowledge and therefore on the intangible; it seeks to train talent. In a country like Italy, where viewpoints, dialogues, and investments are focused on the past to preserve traditions, for once, the investment is on the future and on what new generations can do to make it better.

The matter of technology is paramount. If we struggle to keep up with innovation, how can we teach our children something that we ourselves fail to assimilate? The Z and Alpha generations are incredible. If we give them the right environment to grow in, they will easily learn what is going on around them. If anything, the problem is their parents: previous generations grew up in an analog world and have a hard time dealing with this change. They know little about digital tools and abuse them all the time.

The notion of spending part of one’s life on education and part on work has gradually vanished. Education has become “lifelong;” change is continuous and personal, and professional development training is essential. Over the last decade, learning has become a fun process, with amazing tools and approaches. I think it is quite reasonable that each generation feels that it is at the core of a radical change, the protagonist of a profound mutation, but perhaps today, as far as education is concerned, we are really at the dawn of an epoch-making transition. Since learning will move online and software will play a major role, at the end of 2020 we will also launch a completely virtual campus: one that will have a real impact on a large segment of the population. We will not be the only ones, but having a structure like H-FARM behind us will make a difference.

Investing to create an innovation hub in the countryside is complicated, but it is not a utopia. In a few years, we will see a rediscovery of the rural dimension. The development of technology is accelerating, and human beings — while evolving — cannot cope with this acceleration. So they will seek places that are in harmony with nature and are conducive to innovation, but also to thought and meditation. A place that is “off,” a campus (from the Latin meaning of campus: “field”) that is precisely in the middle of fields, where we can gaze past the horizon, and towards the future.

Chronemics and cultures

Time, as we know it in Western culture, is linear and sequential. It moves by seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months, and years. Once time has passed, it’s done. We plan for the future through calendars and diaries. But not every culture looks at time in this Western way. There are variations on this theme, which have been explored through history, anthropology, psychology, and physics — a whole other wormhole to get sucked into. But time as a form of cross-cultural communication is becoming more important in our ever-shrinking world. Hence, many organizations are looking at time perception through the lens of Chronemics to analyze cultures and how they relate to time.

Edward T. Hall, an anthropologist and cross-cultural scholar, analyzes the give-and-take of human relationships with time in his book The Silent Language. He concludes that there are two main viewpoints: The first are “polychronic” cultures that can attend to multiple events at the same time. They value relationships and traditions and are focused more on the overall outcome of an event than on punctuality. The second are “monochronic” cultures. These cultures view time as tangible, as a commodity whereby “time is money,” taking care of one event at a time. 

Courtesy of Laura Thompson

Dr. Thomas J. Bruneau, a non-verbal communication expert, takes Hall’s theory a step further. He coined the term Chronemics as “the study of human tempo as it relates to human communication.” This includes observations and theories about our use of time, how time is perceived, valued, and structured, in the context of communication within cultural systems. Chronemics has become an umbrella term for communication and cultural analysis. The question is, are these factors too simplistic for global cultural analysis?

In her cross-cultural communications research, Dr. Sana Reynolds emphasizes a third way that different groups perceive time – according to the natural world. This cyclical time perception is different than polychronic-monochronic time cultures where people control their time.

“What caught my attention was that I kept bumping into multiple proverbs that told me that people were not in control,” says Reynolds. “It was striking how much emphasis was placed on the role of nature and that human beings were just another manifestation of life within the scope of this force and therefore had to live in accordance with nature.”

Reynolds explains how this cyclical time manifests across the world, in what she calls a three-part view of time. Strict time is followed in the United States, Germany, and Switzerland, and beyond punctuality, it means people are focused on time in general. Flex time is attributed to more Southern European countries like Spain, France, and Italy, which are more easygoing about time focusing more on relationships than punctuality. Then there is cyclical time, where nature dominates how people tell time. She says that it’s even possible to see different time perceptions across the same country using Switzerland as an example. “In Zurich, it’s the clock that reigns supreme and therefore the culture is strict or monochronic. Then you have another area in the country known as Romandie which is French-influenced and there you have polychronic or flex time. Finally, there is the Landquart region where Johanna Spyri wrote, Heidi, and there, agrarian or cyclical time perception is part of the culture.”

Courtesy of Laura Thompson

Cyclical time is not clock-bound and is attributed to more traditional societies. Raymond Cohen, Professor of International Studies at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in his book, Negotiating Across Cultures, says: “The arbitrary divisions of the clock face have little saliency in cultures grounded in the cycle of the seasons, the invariant pattern of rural life, community life, and the calendar of religious festivities.” 

Western society’s globalization and cultural narratives rely on strict time constructs to control the populace on a wide scale. In North American culture, time is money, time marches on, and time is spent. Life is scheduled right down to what people do on their time off. How people and cultures are valued is entwined in this measure. Groups and individuals who don’t fall in line with these constructs may be marginalized. 

Reynolds posits that when it comes to how western culture thinks about human communication there is the accusation of a lack of respect for the way in which other cultures operate due to time perception. This is changing. Scholars are becoming very aware of this bias and are saying that greater attention needs to be paid to this paradigm.

Edward Said, a professor at Columbia University, explored this idea in Orientalism, explaining how the West’s representations of “The East”— the societies and peoples who inhabit the places of Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East — may create a communications bias. This brings up questions of cultural relativity and linguistic relativity, which try to give each culture its due, but in practice, may alienate ‘exotic’ cultures. 

Deep in Brazil’s Amazonian rainforests, there is a group where time does not exist as it does for us. The Amondawa tribe, rather than tracking their lives in years, changes their names according to different stages of life and clan-affiliation. Yet, they speak Portuguese in order to trade and can count and discuss time in a polychronic way as is found throughout the rest of the country. 

Chris Sinha, a professor at Hunan University who studied the Amondawa, says understanding how different cultures perceive time, can help us understand what it means to be human. He writes, in When time is not space The social and linguistic construction of time intervals and temporal event relations in an Amazonian culture: “We can’t and shouldn’t try to stop change, but we should help empower people like the Amondawa to determine their own future and keep their language and traditions alive.”

Cultures who do not follow the polychronic-monochronic view of time should not be expected to change how they perceive time. But with the introduction of modernity which includes health care, communication devices, and electricity also might come — as in the Amondawa example — a need to communicate outside of their norms, for survival. 

Differences in time perception affect the way people behave and how we live and work together as humans. As individuals, we may time-warp through polychronic, monochronic, and cyclical times, but cultures do not, which can cause diverse views of time across the same country. For now, businesses, academia, and international organizations are turning to Chronemics to help them understand and communicate across cultures. Who knows what the future holds as cultural groups become more connected, but in the meantime, time marches on.

Productivity before dawn

The paradox of our interconnected age is that we’re running out of time — not simply because we’re mortal, or because our perception of time changes as we grow. We are constantly trying to make time for more activities. Or, to make our time more productive. If taking a break and becoming mindful (which is, doing one thing at a time) isn’t an option, carving time out in our mornings is the ultimate solution to the struggle for more time. Even better: Deliberate mornings are an act of self-care. They can make us more focused. Ultimately, some might even say, they’re the key to a fulfilling and successful life.

In the last few years, morning routines have become more and more popular. The term ‘morning routine’ started gaining traction as a Google search in 2012, and it’s not a coincidence: In 2011, smartphone sales outnumbered those of regular cell phones. Once we started realizing the downside of being connected 24/7 was stretching our working hours beyond the usual 9-to-5 grind, so began the quest for a magic formula to bring time back into our hands. And we haven’t stopped looking for it: Google search data shows that 2019 was the year of morning routines, or at least, the year when morning routines were one of the most sought-after New Year’s resolutions, as that search peaked during the first week of January. The most obsessed are Australians, with the highest number of queries typed in Perth, Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney, and Melbourne, followed by Canadians (Toronto), and U.S. citizens (Philadelphia, New York, and Los Angeles).

“Maybe we’re expecting too much out of time,” says Benjamin Spall, co-author with Michael Xander of My Morning Routine: How Successful People Start Every Day Inspired, a collection of over 60 morning routines that Spall and Xander initially collected for their website Spall read the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and then he and Xander decided to start a website where they’d interview people about their different daily habits. Spall and Xander started with their friends and as their collection grew, so did the calibre of their interviewees, which now includes high-performers such as three-time Olympic gold medalist in swimming, Rebecca Soni; Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios; and Biz Stone, co-founder of Twitter and Medium. Some routines are spartan and strict, some are all about exercising, while others are more self-indulgent — yet none of them sound like a chore. Spall says of his routine: “I get up at 6:30, meditate for 10 minutes, then write for approximately 45 minutes. I have my breakfast, and then head to work. I always read on the subway, because in the evening I’m just too tired to read, so I bring reading into my morning routine that way.”

Do morning routines change our perception of time? Yes, Spall says: “I definitely feel that I have more time for myself. In those 45 minutes, I focus on writing. I don’t check my mail, don’t check my Twitter. It can be difficult, but I know that I won’t get this time again until the next day, so this really makes me feel that time is more precious and that I have to make the best use of it.”

So how can early rising become something that we enjoy doing, to the point where we can’t wait for that magic hour? Mark McLaughlin, neurosurgeon, keynote speaker, and author of the book Cognitive Dominance: A Brain Surgeon’s Quest to Outthink Fear, says if we are looking forward to our morning routine, then we won’t mind getting up early for it. He says: “There is this quote from Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson that I really like: We grow in strength in proportion to our willingness to confront sequential challenges. If you’re really excited about what you’re going to do, even if it’s something really hard, you want to get up.” He says the battle to get up early to do what we love is about fear, rather than sleepiness: “Some people would say it’s not fear. Is it anxiety then? Is it uneasiness? Is it something causing you to avoid what you need to do? Staying in bed is an avoidance strategy. It’s the mental running away from something.” Doing what brings you joy first thing in the morning, well before distractions and interruptions start to creep in, can create a positive feedback loop where you no longer have that fear.

Are we naturally wired for early morning routines though? McLaughlin says, we are: “There’s good science proving that circadian rhythms are important to follow. Biologically, for thousands of years, we’ve functioned around the sun. And so it’s important to know that when you’re trying to break that system, you’re fighting Mother Nature, you’re fighting the encoding of your entire genetic system.” He says that the morning is the best time to get into the habit of a routine, and by building a routine we can create a positive feedback loop in our brains. While you could build the same type of routine in the evening, McLaughlin says: “We’ve been structured during thousands of years to have a morning routine.”

McLaughlin’s morning routine includes 10 minutes of meditation followed by filing and planning — what he calls a ‘triple threat.’ He started developing this structure 20 years ago, struck by what the president of the hospital where he worked said to him as he was starting his career: “The first hour in the morning is mine. I do whatever I want to do for myself in the morning. Some days it’s sleep, some days it’s read, but it’s absolutely mine. It’s non-negotiable.” Inspired by David Allan’s book Getting Things Done, McLaughlin started by creating files for each day of the month, and for each month of the year, plus an additional one called ‘someday, maybe.’ He says: “I’m constantly thinking of things that I want to do. So instead of carrying this big pile around with me, I just drop each task into one day of the month, and in the morning, when I look at my files, I just say ‘It doesn’t matter what you’ve got to do today, get that one thing done and then file.’ And that gives you the strength to grow. And you start getting that confidence. It works really, really well. Starting your day without a set plan is like running a race with no idea of the route or destination: you might get there eventually, but you’re going to be stressed, exhausted, and certainly lagging behind everyone else.”

Whether you follow Robin Sharma’s The 5 am Club method — waking up at 5 a.m. followed by 20 minutes of moving, 20 minutes of reflecting, and 20 minutes for personal growth — or if you are an early riser sticking to a self-care routine, you are not doing more — you are actually doing less. That’s the conclusion performance coach, and former Division I All American wrestler, Jim Harshaw, came to as he interviewed his guests for his podcast, Success Through Failure. When asked what’s the one habit that’s most responsible for their success, the answers he collected included journaling, meditating, praying, working with a coach, going on a retreat, and planning. None of these, points out Harshaw, are about ‘doing’ — they’re actually the opposite. Harshaw calls these moments productive pauses. Ancient Roman writers and philosophers like Horace, Seneca, and Ovid called this otium, an abstract term with a variety of meanings including contemplation, resting, and playing.

While technology wasn’t an intrusion in our lives then as much as it is today, the human fascination with quietness and reflection hasn’t changed. When you’re up early and all alone, your attention isn’t being fragmented, points out Sharma in The 5am Club. He writes: “And so the prefrontal cortex, that part of your brain responsible for rational thinking — as well as constant worrying — actually shuts off for a short time.” According to Sharma, getting to a flow state before the rest of the world wakes up requires a highly-structured discipline for the first hour of the day, including intense physical activity from 5 to 5:20 am, 20 minutes of journaling, meditation, planning, contemplation, or prayer; and 20 more of growth-centred activities like reading, reviewing goals, listening to a podcast, or studying.

Sharma’s focus on physical activity as the very first thing in the morning is backed by science: It has been proven that working out increases dopamine and serotonin levels and therefore reduces cortisol — the stress hormone — which is particularly high early in the morning as cortisol triggers the fight-or-flight mechanism, which cave people relied upon for survival.

Hitting the gym or stepping on the yoga mat first thing in the morning really gives you extra cognitive energy, confirms McLaughlin. “If you need to use your cognitive energy in the morning, you should work out in the morning before you use your cognitive energy. If you look at blood flow studies across the board, they show better blood flow to the brain, and also better metabolite distribution of the brain after you work out. And it makes sense: You process information better, your mind is more alert.”

Being an early bird and catching the worm shouldn’t come at the cost of less sleep though. Sharma recommends a specific night-before routine of doing less that bans technology from the last three hours of the day — unless you decide to listen to a podcast or an audiobook in your second to last hour before sleep. Media mogul Arianna Huffington, who had her wake-up call from overworking in 2007 and then founded a venture focused on helping people achieve work-life balance, Thrive Global, firmly believes that keeping cell phones away from the bedroom is key to unwinding and embracing a good night’s sleep. So much so that the last chapter of her best-selling book, The Sleep Revolution, is called “Putting technology in its place (not on your nightstand).” Most people bring their phones into the bedroom. With phones comes work stress, to-do lists, and the glare of constant notifications. And because rituals are crucial in learning and development, at some point her startup launched a (bulky) bed phone charging station conceived to keep phones away from the nightstand. “You put your phone under the blanket and you tuck it in and say goodnight,” she told CNBC Make It in 2017. “When you have a child, you [can] teach your child to put the phone in its bed.”

If contemporary writers, coaches, and productivity hack gurus can’t convince you, and you still believe that Aristotle wasn’t right when he recommended that “It is well to be up before daybreak, for such habits contribute to health, wealth, and wisdom,” don’t panic. Morning routines don’t have to be damn early morning ones. “There are many books, articles, and podcasts where people talk about these strict routines. And it’s great if that works for some people, but for most of us, it doesn’t really work that way,” says Spall. “I don’t do my morning routine every day. I try to, but sometimes I am tired and I need to sleep a little bit more. If you miss one day, try not to miss the following day. And start little. If you normally wake up at 7 am, aiming for 5 am will burn you out.” Whether it is meditating, working out, or something else, the point of embracing a morning routine is enjoying that time, not just always trying to get the most out of it.

A crowdsourcing rallying cry

Now that billions of us are linked to each other through the personal technology of social media, and as a serial entrepreneur dedicated to the cause of pushing back the boundaries of harnessing the power of crowds, I have been surprised to see that some of my contemporaries see crowdsourcing as bad for business. I have built a Crowdsourcing Week network, where modern versions of crowdsourcing are on the verge of becoming much more mainstream, but realize that there is still a huge job to be done to convince crowdsourcing skeptics. 

History shows that crowdsourcing is not a new practice. Britain wanted its navy and merchant fleets to travel and trade safely throughout its global territories, and in the 1700s, ran the open-innovation Longitude Challenge that resulted in accurate navigation. In the 1800s, Napoleon needed to feed his armies while they were on the move and launched a prize challenge that led to canned food. In the 2010s, NASA received a prize-winning solution for a foldaway radiation shield challenge after reaching out to origami experts.

At a professional level, a proliferation of open innovation platforms encourages skilled experts throughout the world to compete for cash and status by offering solutions to an array of challenges, whether as individuals or as collaborative teams. They also enable the involvement of “citizen scientists,” who, despite a lack of recognized status or credentials, may offer original ideas from a novel perspective. 

Open innovation challenges generate suggestions and solutions more cost-effectively than relying solely on traditional R&D teams, or tendering expensive contracts to a limited number of established suppliers.

Where people are unencumbered by an established reputation in any particular area they can be braver and take more risks. They also might apply different mindsets and skill sets than an organization might look for in a full-time employee.  

What is new is the high number of people and the speed at which they can be contacted. The fact that this could be construed as a negative factor merely identifies that plenty of commentators have no idea how to set qualified aims, and then how to plan, launch, and manage an open innovation challenge to achieve them. Like an iceberg, many people see only what is visible above the water line and remain oblivious to the rest of the structure. So, how can we best use crowdsourcing? At a recent Crowdsourcing Week conference in San Francisco, Aurelie Wen, the CEO of the open innovation platform Agorize North America, presented to delegates on “nine ways to ruin an open innovation challenge project.” Her pitch deck highlights how to knock nine key parts on an open innovation challenge out of the park. Here are some of the key takeaways for how to use crowdsourcing in your favor:

Define a problem and not a solution. If you define a solution, then you are not going to get the best innovation – you are going to get iterations of the same idea. Of course, you need to define some parameters for the end goal (e.g., no bigger than X, able to be powered by Y, fits in Z, etc.) so the results will be usable and applicable to your situation. But, other than that, leave it up to the participants to determine a solution. You’ll be surprised by what you get!

Make it worthwhile for teams. What are you offering people as an incentive? Is the prize attractive? Or is one even necessary — how about offering an investment in a company, or a job with your company, or testing in your labs? Or, for an internal challenge, unique opportunities, such as dinner with a CEO at their home, sounds one up on mentioning a winner’s name in a company newsletter. It is not always about the prize money — it is about the other opportunities the winner gets for being associated with you and your competition. Maybe you’ll offer something that money can’t buy.

Don’t ask for too much. All too often, people see prize competitions as the Holy Grail — they think they can just ask for everything and the kitchen sink and give only a few weeks to complete it. Think about what you really need and do not ask for more than that. Then give a realistically appropriate amount of time (but not too much time) for the teams to complete the task. Remember, it is the participants’ time and money that are at risk, so if you are asking for too much in too little time, they are not going to compete for your prize competition. I’ve seen too many prize challenges fail because only a handful of participants competed, and that’s one of the reasons against crowdsourcing  as a path to innovation.

The metaphysics of plants

“I think we should ask ourselves what time means for living beings, and then try to understand how plants live in this dimension,” says Italian philosopher, Emanuele Coccia.

Calling plants the “most subtle artisans of our cosmos,” Coccia, maître de conférences at the Paris’ École des Hautes études en Sciences Sociales (School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences), wrote about how these green deities experience the world in The Life of Plants: A Metaphysics of Mixture.

Is time the same for all creatures?

Time is the same for all living creatures. It is the way time is perceived that changes. For plants, this is different than that of humans or animals for several reasons. First of all, think of a typical tree. In fall and winter, much of its body is made of dead tissue. Around 80 or 90 % of what we call tree bark, is dead. So, that life of a tree is almost subdued death or, even more strikingly, it has turned death into what gives it its shape, solidity, and resistance. It is something really extraordinary. Humans are used to imagining death as the end of our existence. On the contrary, a tree turns dead parts into strength and this detail denotes a different relationship with time. Plants can reproduce by flowers, fruits, and seeds. Seeds have a strange temporal latency as living beings which can spend years in a state between life and death. They are not dead, but rather, alive in a peculiar way, as if hibernating.

For humans, time is a straight, while for plants it is a circle: Is that true?

More than a circle, for plants, time is an epicycloid which always comes back to its origin, since a tree is made (also) of dead tissue and it dies too but in a very strange way. Many trees and plants have asexual reproduction which is something that can make them potentially eternal. Huon pines, from Tasmania, can live 3,000 years, among the oldest living organisms. A Huon pine found in 1995 had fossil records dated at 3,462 years. By touching the ground, its branches generated new identical offspring which were the extension of it, giving it eternal life. How humans and plants feel time is also different. Humans feel time in both a physiological and social manner, we feel time with our emotions and in our bodies. In the case of plants, there is no separation, since perception is not assigned to specific sensory organs but it is something happening at a molecular level. Plants “feel” with all of their bodies, so time is one dimensional — they are what they perceive and they perceive what they are.

Courtesy of Amaury Barrera

How do plants age?

Plants do age, but they also rejuvenate and this is another major difference between them, animals and humans — the latter can rejuvenate only by breeding. Conversely, the former has an inner mechanism for tissue rejuvenation. And plants can do that on their own, rendering them potentially immortal creatures. Plants’ morphology says a lot about what time means for them. The same tree can have varying ages across different areas, and this is a paradox. A trunk lives for a tree’s entire lifespan, but it could have a branch which is one year or even one month old. Just imagine a human who suddenly saw an arm growing from their body. Many plants experience this process of never-ending growth which consists not only in an increase of their volume, but also the development of new tissue.

In your book, you describe plants as in-between creatures: They belong to the soil and to the air, so they have a double nature. Does this condition affect their relationship with time?

Land and air are quite different, so this certainly must affect their relationship with time. Furthermore, roots are believed to be so receptive that Charles Darwin was convinced that they were a sort of brain. More than having a twofold perception of time, the air and soil of plants live different lives. The atmospheric part perceives the constant succession of light and dark — which ignites some reactions and causes some specific behaviours. Conversely, no light can filter underground, but heat and electro-magnetic radiation give plants vital information about their environment. It’s like watching two different movies. They live following two different rhythms simultaneously.

Courtesy of Amaury Barrera

Do plants have a memory, or memories?

Yes. Consider the trunk, for example, as a kind of climatic archive. Mimosa Pudica is a plant whose leaves close inward and droop when it is touched or shaken, to defend itself from harm. However, if has been proven that if you touch it several times, then it will recognize you and won’t close. This is a non-specialized form of memory but it is a form of memory, so the real question is what is this memory for Mimosa Pudica, or other plants? Plants are sedentary, so they need a different kind of memory than humans. We need memory because we move: Without memory we wouldn’t know where we are, we couldn’t find our bearings. But if you don’t move, then many facts which seem essential become useless.

Do plants also have a conscience?

It has been scientifically proven that plants know the difference between what happens around them and inside them. Humans can distinguish between themselves and the rest of the world. Plants also do this in their own way. Each living being has to trace a border between itself and the outside, for protection. If they want to survive, they have to solve problems. If they solve problems, it means that they can think and have a conscience. It’s as simple as that.

Why do we procrastinate?

At least once in our lifetimes we have met someone who unequivocally claims to be the best procrastinator in the world. Maybe they are a close friend, or a colleague, or a stranger. If you haven’t met them, you are likely this procrastinator. Whether it’s about making a business call, writing an email, or visiting a friend, we’ve all experienced the spiraling cycle of ignoring the activity we had promised ourselves that we’d complete, and instead deciding, without any logical reason, to do something else—even though we know that we are going to feel guilty about it later. 

Our digital, always-connected age, where we are constantly distracted by push notifications, emails, and messages seeking our attention is the arch-enemy of getting things done. Commonly understood as a time management problem, procrastination is, however, rooted in another problem: the inability to recognize and deal with our emotions. During the 1980s, procrastination was the focus of publications and papers; and there were also some less-empirical studies in the 1970s. Today, procrastination research involves brain activities and modeling.

To better understand why we procrastinate, we need to define procrastination. According to Dr. Tim Pychyl, a professor of psychology and member of the Procrastination Research Group at Ottawa’s Carleton University, the prevalent definition of procrastination is “the voluntary delay of an intended act despite expecting it to be worse off for the delay.” And all of those elements are important, says Pychyl. If we are in the middle of a phone call, but a higher priority comes up, we pick up the more important call. This is a purposeful delay. Inevitable delays are for example if a child gets injured, and you have to delay whatever you’re doing. Similarly, if someone is feeling depressed we wouldn’t accuse them of procrastinating when there is a delay, because they have a reasonable excuse.

This is what procrastination is not. Instead, procrastination is when we say that we’re going to the post office at 9 a.m. and we start to come up with excuses, such as “I don’t feel like it,” “I’ll have plenty of time later,” and we, in turn, feel guilty about our behavior. “That’s the second essential part of the definition of procrastination—we know that our choice is going to come back at us: If I said I would do this today, that’s because it is the best time to do it and here I am avoiding it,” says Pychyl.

What seems like a modern phenomenon is instead widespread across cultures and eras. Around 700 BC, Greek poet Hesiod wrote in his poem “Work and Days” addressing his brother: “industry makes work go well, but a man who puts off work is always at hand-grips with ruin.” Procrastinating, particularly every day, could ruin your life. “Procrastination has been around since the beginning of time. Ancient Egyptians had a notion of a delay that was needless and unnecessary, saying that there was a time to plant your crops, to sow, and to harvest, and if you didn’t follow these systems then there was a problem,” explains Pychyl. He adds that we see procrastination mentioned in early-Christian literature and that all of the world’s major world religions have a concept of a sin of sloth, and this also speaks to procrastination. “It’s not a new phenomenon but, in our modern world, where you can book a flight a year from now, and you know that people are going to show up when they say they will, time has changed in its precision, and procrastination has taken on a different meaning,” says Pychyl.

It seems that every culture has an understanding of needless delays: delays that cause problems, as opposed to other kinds of delays. “Procrastination is not new, and it requires cultural understanding, but at the same time, its problematic nature is clear. And that’s what procrastination is: a delay that is problematic,” adds Pychyl. However, each individual experiences procrastination in their own way, and what we choose to do, rather than completing the original task, is directly linked to the reason why we procrastinate. 

According to his research, Pychyl doesn’t see procrastination as a time management problem, he sees it as an emotion-regulation problem. “Time management is necessary but not sufficient,” explains Pychyl, “you have to have time management skills but the problem is that even though you have great skills, you get to the point where you don’t want to or don’t feel like doing something because you can’t manage your emotions.” If we frame procrastination as a mood-repairing issue, we procrastinate to feel better. When a given task is boring or makes us feel frustrated, we are going to pick something uplifting. “However,” notices Pychyl, “we all know people who actually clean their house, or bake, and that’s really interesting.”

What’s striking about procrastination is that it rarely means doing nothing. We usually decide to do some other tasks or activities. It’s not inaction, it’s more of a survival self-defense mechanism. Pychyl and his students did a study on what they call procrasticleaning: people that choose to clean their house instead of doing their task. For these people, cleaning has a compensatory function, they feel bad and so they choose to do something else that appears to be a good task for them to do, that makes them feel good about themselves. The same applies to procrastibaking: baking something completely unnecessary to put off work. These activities make us feel skilled and virtuous, and at the same time people choose it because it’s more structured, they get immediate reinforcement, although it’s not necessarily fun. However, the reasoning behind how we decide what to do instead of dealing with our original task is not clear: we might do something tomorrow that we actually procrastinated on today. “It really is this interplay about which activity bothers me the most,” highlights Pychyl.

Illustration by Johnny Cobalto

Understanding procrastination as an emotion-regulation problem hits on one of the most widespread preconceptions about it: our fixation with efficiency. As a society, we framed it for so long as a time management issue because that is what we usually see: if you’re not meeting your deadlines, I assume you must not know how to complete tasks. We are imbued in an old model of time management, says Pychyl, “it comes from the 19th century when efficiency experts went in and started to divide jobs into tasks to increase productivity.” But that’s not the way our day-to-day lives work: we become more efficient, but what usually gets in the way, are our feelings. “Many of us are unaware of our feelings,” says Pychyl, “some research has shown that the more emotionally intelligent you are, the less you procrastinate.” We might realize that if we don’t feel like doing a task today, those same feelings will show up later.

If dealing with procrastination often seems impossible, it gets worse when distractions are only one click away. We divert our attention while getting lost in Google, reading group chats, or watching YouTube. Technology may be playing a crucial role in what seems to be an increase in procrastination, yet Pychyl says that we lack the scientific data to prove this increase over time. Researching and studying procrastination involves self-reporting and interviews, but, as Pychyl points out, the best solution would be to follow people daily. However, this would be so intrusive and time-consuming that many people would not want to participate.

Procrastination has serious consequences. According to some statistics, almost 20 percent of people in the world can be considered chronic procrastinators—meaning that their inability to finish tasks and activities dramatically impacts their lives and wellbeing. While Pychyl doesn’t agree with the proposed figures, he believes that there is such a thing as chronic procrastination and that it can be debilitating. “There are people who procrastinate up to the point where it affects their interpersonal relationships and their ability to work,” says Pychyl. “We could consider this a serious problem for a minority of people.”

Despite some professors trying to add it to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, chronic procrastination is not considered a mental illness. Defining the level at which procrastination turns into a formal disorder rather than an occasional act is complex and troublesome. To understand what that level may look like, we can think of what happens with perfectionism. We all might be a little perfectionist. True perfectionists can’t get anything done and feel depressed because of it. This condition could even affect their ability to work and be in love. “I get emails from people all over the world telling me that their lives have fallen apart because of their procrastination,” says Pychyl. Procrastination often feels like an inescapable downward spiral: procrastination draws more procrastination. It makes you feel bad about yourself, and when you feel bad you are less motivated.

But what is really interesting about this spiral, explains Pychyl, is that people can easily turn it around. “I can force myself to do something, and my motivation follows my doing.” says Pychyl, “Making a little bit of progress, doing something can lift you up, and you have to think about the next action you need to take if you’re going to complete the task that you were working on.” Procrastinators typically wait until they are motivated to do something, they wait until the pressure is so high that they have to work. “And they think that they work better in this way, but it is not true: that’s the only way they know because they haven’t learned other ways to work,” says Pychyl.

One of the key solutions to fight procrastination is to take simple actions to make progress—bootstrapping ourselves. Another solution would be overcoming our disconnection to our future selves. “We’ve seen evidence that if we develop more empathy for our future self we will also procrastinate less,” says Pychyl. We usually think of our future selves as a different person, who is unrelated to us, so we leave them to deal with whatever we decide not to do today. “You should do a little bit of time travel, bringing your future-self closer, imagining yourself later in the week and how you will feel about the procrastinated task,” says Pychyl. Researchers have also shown that when we think about chores concretely, these tasks seem to belong to today, and have a sense of urgency. However, when we think about this work abstractly, it lacks urgency. If you try to consider and describe your task concretely you’ll avoid postponing it.

However, we shouldn’t see procrastination not only as a way of coping with negative emotions such as anxiety, insecurity, and self-doubt that may be induced by certain tasks. “Procrastination can be a sign that this is not the life you should be living,” says Pychyl. On the one hand, procrastination reflects human nature and our desire to avoid activities that are difficult or that we find boring or that scare us—all of which is understandable and part of the human condition. On the other hand, procrastination may also be a symptom of a larger issue in someone’s life. Chronic procrastinators can see their lives deteriorating and researchers have shown that the amygdala (the part of the brain which processes emotions) of chronic procrastinators is larger. This could mean that as procrastinators learn, they are encoding more emotions and therefore they have an emotional response to tasks. “That’s a likely explanation, but we have more work to do to understand the neurophysiology of procrastination” concludes Pychyl.

We usually focus on a lack of will, when looking for solutions to procrastination, by searching for shortcuts that make ourselves get things done, respect deadlines, and increase our efficiency and productivity. If we see procrastination as a time management issue, we risk focusing our attention on the wrong outcomes: we’ll get our work done, but we won’t consider how we feel about these tasks and ourselves.