WorkLife with Adam Grant
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Margaret Atwood: It's like going into a very cold lake when you've decided you're going to go swimming in it.

Adam Grant: This is how one famous writer describes procrastination.

MA: You put your foot in, you take it out. You put it in again ... It's still too cold. (Laughs) You think, "Am I going to do this or not? Am I really going to do this?" No, yes, no, yes. That goes on for a while. If you're going to do it, you run in screaming.

AG: So says Margaret Atwood. She's best known as the acclaimed author of "The Handmaid's Tale" and has sold many millions of books. But you might not know that she's also a self-proclaimed world expert on procrastination.

MA: Yeah, I've racked up, you know, years and years of it.

AG: Because Margaret doesn't do anything halfway.

MA: If you're going to do something, might as well be good at it, right? I'd hate to be a failed procrastinator.

(Both laugh)


AG: She can procrastinate anywhere with the greatest of ease. At home, in a coffee shop, even up in the air.

MA: I think it's always more fun to watch movies on planes than to work.

(Both laugh)

A film called "Captain Underpants" was on the menu. So I was watching "Captain Underpants," which well repaid my time. And then the plane landed and I forgot that my computer was on it and did not tell my publishers that I had left this computer with all of this correspondence about the heavily embargoed novel, "The Testaments," on the plane.

AG: Oh my gosh.

MA: Yeah, it was very bad. I won't do it again soon.

AG: But here's the thing. Despite being a world-class procrastinator, Margaret does not turn manuscripts in late.

MA: No, no, no, no, no. I do not miss deadlines. I would consider it dishonorable to miss a deadline.

AG: How does she manage her procrastination so productively? And can you?


I'm Adam Grant and this is WorkLife, my podcast with TED. I'm an organizational psychologist. I study how to make work not suck. In this show, I'm inviting myself inside the minds of some truly unusual people, because they've mastered something I wish everyone knew about work.


Today, procrastination, and why it's not as much of a character flaw or as impossible to overcome as you might think.


Thanks to Hilton for sponsoring this episode.


(Music fades out)

Procrastination is intentionally delaying a task that needs to be done even though you know it will come with a cost. Instead of working, you might find yourself watching cat videos on YouTube, looking in your fridge to see if something new has magically appeared in the last 10 minutes, or deciding your productivity problem is that you type too slow, then taking a typing test online to confirm your suspicion, and then taking it over and over to get a better score.

If you're like most people, you first became acquainted with procrastination in school. Somewhere between 80 and 95 percent of students procrastinate. And half of them do it chronically. But it doesn't just disappear when you graduate. About 15 to 20 percent of adults are chronic procrastinators. I'm not one of them.

I'm the opposite, a precrastinator, someone who feels pressure to start tasks immediately and finish them ahead of schedule. Although I did get sucked into that typing test.


But if a task is important, I tend to get it done before the deadline. And my colleagues tell me that can be annoying. I'm constantly late to meetings. My excuse? "I was busy finishing another project early."


So I'm pretty fascinated by chronic procrastinators, who live on the opposite extreme. Like Douglas Adams, who wrote "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy." On a typical writing day, he would sit in the bath for hours, waiting for an idea to come. By the time he got out and got dressed, he often forgot the idea, which would lead him right back to the bathtub. It was so bad that he once had his editor lock him in a hotel suite for several weeks. One that presumably only had a shower.


Writers are legendary procrastinators. The question is why. And Margaret Atwood has an answer.

MA: I see myself as lazy.

AG: If you're a procrastinator, you might have said the same thing about yourself. Lazy, slacker, undisciplined. But is Margaret Atwood, bestselling author of dozens of books, really lazy?

Fuschia Sirois: No, no. That's one of the common myths about procrastination, it's just people being lazy.

AG: Fuschia Sirois is a psychologist in the UK. Her specialty is studying procrastination, and she knows that the root of procrastination is actually something far sneakier than laziness. It's not about avoiding work. It's about avoiding feelings. More specifically, negative emotions.

FS: We say at the core, procrastination is about mood regulation. So a task may elicit lack of confidence, feelings of incompetency, insecurity, fear of failure, anxiety. You put that task aside, and you've just regulated your mood. Now you feel better. It's like, "Ah, great. I don't have to think about it."

AG: You know more about this than most. Do you still procrastinate?

FS: Yeah well, you know, I'm human so yeah, I do procrastinate. The classic thing for me is, you know, I've got this paper to write. And I'm thinking, this is going to be really hard. And I build it up into something that's really huge. And you know, after a couple of days of that, I just kind of go, "Right, I'm procrastinating. I've just got to get on with this."

AG: Everyone procrastinates on something. If you're on top of your work, there's probably still a task you're delaying, even though you know it comes at a cost.

FS: You've got to buy a present for your aunt that you only see once a year, for example. And she tends to be really picky. And so now you're thinking, "Oh, if I make a mistake, she's just going to give me that look." (Laughs)

AG: This doesn't sound like a hypothetical example.

(Fuschia laughs)

AG: I'm not going to ask you to name your aunt, but ...

(Both laugh)

AG: If you still think you're just lazy, here's some proof. Take a look at what you do while you're procrastinating. Some of those tasks actually take a lot of energy and effort.

FS: You'll see some, you know, classic chronic procrastinators. They will have the neatest houses. Everything will be organized. All the dishes will be done. Everything will be clean. But the big looming task that they're supposed to be doing isn't being done.

AG: If you're actively doing something else, it's pretty clear that you're not lazy. You're avoiding a task that stirs up negative emotions. And that can have consequences. At work, chronic procrastinators are less productive than their peers. And their health suffers for it.

FS: If you're a chronic procrastinator, you have higher levels of stress. You have poor sleep quality. You tend to not exercise as much. You might eat more junk food, especially because you're stressed. If you're a chronic procrastinator, you've got difficulty regulating yourself.

AG: Which can lead to depression and anxiety.

FS: They actually put off seeking help for those mental health issues, which doesn't help either.

AG: Oh no, so they meta-procrastinate.

FS: Yes, definitely. People feel guilty when they procrastinate. But that guilt doesn't operate in the same way that it does for most people. Guilt could be a motivating emotion.

AG: Yeah, it's like the Erma Bombeck line that guilt is the gift that keeps on giving.

FS: Yeah, well, for procrastinators, what it gives is more procrastination.

AG: Ah, so unfair.

Even if you're not a chronic procrastinator, there are certain types of tasks that you might have a habit of postponing.

FS: Might be a procrastinogenic environment because ...

(Adam laughs)

AG: Did you say "procrastinogenic?"

FS: Yes, procrastinogenic. AG: What a great phrase.

(Fuschia laughs)

FS: Well, it's an environment that can evoke procrastination.

AG: I am absolutely using this as an excuse. It's not me, it's not that I lack willpower. This is just a very procrastinogenic task.

FS: Yeah, tasks that don't give you autonomy, that lack structure, and that are ambiguous.

AG: Is that why so many writers struggle with procrastination?

FS: It could be. Because yeah, when you're writing, who's telling you what the next thing is you're supposed to be writing, right? You are. I mean, it brings up uncertainty about yourself. It brings up doubts about whether you know what you're doing, right? We all have that feeling from time to time.


AG: You might find yourself procrastinating to avoid anxiety, confusion or boredom. Whichever your flavor of procrastination, psychology points to a couple ways to curb it. For one, you can start by trying to be a little kinder to yourself about your past procrastination. Yep, this actually makes a difference.

FS: Our emotions can actually change the way we view the task.

AG: Instead of beating yourself up, show yourself a little compassion. Relieve the guilt. Research reveals that after students put off studying for an exam, those who forgive themselves are actually less likely to procrastinate on preparing for the next test. Fuschia and her colleagues have found that it helps to remind yourself that you're not the only one suffering from procrastination. It's part of the human condition. Everyone does it on occasion.

FS: Sometimes I will just sort of step back and go, "Yep, yep. I'm just being like every other procrastinator in the planet." And you're acknowledging what you're doing, accepting responsibility for it. But you're not feeding back into the negative emotions that probably put you in that place where you wanted to procrastinate in the first place.

AG: It turns out that self-compassion is especially hard if you're a neurotic perfectionist, the kind of person who constantly beats yourself up for never doing work that's good enough. If that's you, you might take a cue from productive perfectionists and stop judging your work before you've even produced it. In other words, don't criticize yourself while you're creating. Try waiting until you've finished developing your ideas before you worry about evaluating them. That's something Margaret Atwood advises.

MA: The wastepaper basket is your friend. So go ahead, say something. It may be the wrong thing, but you can throw that out and no one will ever read your dumb thing that you've put on them.

AG: Margaret has a long history of procrastinating to escape negative emotions.

MA: I procrastinated about starting "The Handmaid's Tale." I procrastinated for about three years. I tried to write a more normal novel instead, because I thought it was just too batty.

AG: Too batty, really?

MA: Yeah, I mean it doesn't seem very batty now. But think of when this was. It was in the early '80s. Yeah, it just seemed a bit too batty.

AG: Margaret wasn't just worried that the plot was far-fetched. Her fears actually kept her from writing the book sooner.

MA: You don't know who's going to read it. You've got no idea. You don't know whether they'll like it or not. It's not something you can anticipate or have any control over, really.

AG: Years ago, when asked to describe her writing routine, Margaret said she would spend the morning procrastinating and worrying. Then plunge into the manuscript in a frenzy of anxiety around three o'clock, when it looked as though she might not get anything done. It still happens to her sometimes.

MA: Scrolling around on the news certainly can get me sucked in.

AG: Luckily, Margaret has come up with a unique strategy for dealing with her procrastination habit. And it's a trick that lines up with what some researchers recommend.

MA: I had another name that I grew up with, and that gave me two names. So I had a double identity. So Margaret does the writing and the other one does everything else.

AG: Her alter ego's name is Peggy.

MA: It's a Scottish diminutive of "Margaret."

AG: Do you actually refer to yourself by both identities in your head?

MA: Absolutely. AG: Seriously?

MA: Well, you see what a range it gives me.

AG: Do you have conversations between Margaret and Peggy?

MA: No, they lead quite separate lives. Peggy does the laundry. Now there is, of course, some overlap. Because sometimes when Peggy's doing the laundry, Margaret is thinking about what is being written. Deciding what to write is done by Margaret. Deciding when to write is sometimes a tug of war.

AG: Margaret's dual identity strategy isn't as strange as it sounds. Psychologists have long observed that we have two selves, the want self and the should self. Your want self runs on emotions. It's drawn to whatever avoids pain or brings pleasure in the short run. That's Margaret watching "Captain Underpants."

MA: Oh, you'd rather be watching "Captain Underpants," let's face it.

AG: The should self is more concerned with doing the right thing in the long run. That's Peggy.

MA: The ordinary person who walks the dog and eats the bran flakes for breakfast.

AG: In the moment, the want self is often stronger. No matter how hard you try to push yourself to do the work you should be doing, it's easy to get pulled into the show you want to be binging. Like, maybe, "The Handmaid's Tale"?


That's the bad news. The good news is that the should self is smarter. You can outwit the want self by planning ahead. This is a second strategy for beating procrastination that science teaches us. You don't have to worry about resisting temptation if you remove temptation. In college, my roommate Palmer was brilliant at this. Whenever it was time to study for an exam, he would ask me to hide his video games. You've probably done it too. Your should self puts the alarm clock across the room at night so your want self can't reach the snooze button in the morning. You prevent procrastination by taking willpower out of the equation. Or maybe your should self announces to the world that you're signing off social media so your want self won't get sucked back in, which is what Peggy does for Margaret, who loves Twitter and sometimes posts random questions that pop up.

MA: For instance, I put up a picture of a weird mushroom, and said, what is this? Because I couldn't find it.

(Adam laughs)

AG: When you're tweeting, how often does that happen while you're writing? Do you actually interrupt yourself or get distracted by social media?

MA: No, no. No, no way, no. I might get distracted before I take the plunge into the writing burrow but not while I'm in it.

AG: How do you prevent that from happening? Is there a mental firewall of sorts?

MA: You turn it off.

AG: For many people, easier said than done. You just turn it off and that's it?

MA: Just don't go there.

AG: It can help to schedule a specific task in your calendar, the same way you schedule meetings. In one experiment, writers were randomly assigned to plan daily writing sessions. They were over four times more productive, and they didn't lose any creativity. Even scheduling 15 minutes a day was enough to make some progress. That's time management. You can also think about timing management. When do you procrastinate? Procrastinators tend to be night owls. The start of the work day is out of sync with their circadian rhythms. If that's you, and you have the flexibility, try moving a task you procrastinate to later in the day, when the wants might be less tempting. One of my favorite tactics for outsmarting my want self is a twist on the to-do list. I found out that Margaret does it, too.

MA: So the list would include everything from "call the tree guy" to, you know, "clean the furnace." If it's not on the list, it doesn't happen.

AG: That's her to-do list. But she also has a to-don't list, a set of activities to avoid while working. Think about your to-don't list. What would you put on it? When I'm working on my boring procrastinogenic tasks, like reading contracts and proofreading articles, my to-don't list includes don't play online Scrabble, don't turn on the TV — unless I already know what I want to watch, and don't scroll on social media after posting. Peggy also puts social media on Margaret's to-don't list. To hold herself accountable, she makes a public commitment, tweeting that she's signing off to write.

MA: "I'm about to write, goodbye." And that's about going off social media for a while, and reassuring people that I'm not dead yet, or possibly disappointing them that I'm not dead yet.

(Adam laughs)

AG: I can't imagine that anyone is disappointed.

MA: They would be even more excited to hear from me if I were dead. They would be really excited then.

(Both laugh)

She came back from the dead.

AG: I'm having a hard time reconciling your self-description of being lazy and procrastinating with your enormous productivity.

MA: Well, just consider some elementary math. Take the number of years I've been alive and divide it by the number of books I've written. (Laughs)

AG: Alright, so you average less than one a year.

MA: Yes, and some are quite short.

AG: And you don't feel like that's a lot.

MA: No, it's just, you know, they accumulate.

AG: Maybe you can start forgiving your want self for procrastinating. Maybe you'll succeed at putting some of the should tasks on your calendar and some wants on your to-don't list. Still, you can't shake the feeling that if only you had more time, you could get more done. But what if the opposite is true? More on that after the break.


OK, this is going to be a different kind of ad. I played a personal role in selecting the sponsors for this podcast, because they all have interesting cultures of their own. Today we're going inside the workplace at Hilton.


(Music fades out)


It's not uncommon for people to say "My coworkers feel like my family." But I recently met someone who takes that sentiment to a whole new level.

Jessica Clingman-Kerns: The DoubleTree by Hilton Sonoma Wine Country is my second home. Everybody here is my family.

AG: That's Jessica Clingman-Kerns, a team member at Hilton. In October 2017, when wildfires swept through wine country, her parents' home burned down.

JCK: The fire just kind of completely took over their entire neighborhood, and their house was gone. It's hard. (Voice breaking) My brother had passed away just a couple months prior, so all of his things were in that house. Just a lot of parts of our life that we'll never get back.

AG: It was devastating. But after sitting with her grief for just a moment, Jessica sprang into action.

JCK: I emptied out my boyfriend's Tahoe (Laughs) and put all my camping stuff in the car. And then I went to Walmart and maxed out a credit card with just toothbrushes and toothpaste and deodorant, and just little things for someone who left their house at midnight and had nothing. And I just started driving.

AG: She headed to the DoubleTree, to set up a makeshift relief operation. A manager provided her with a small conference room, which quickly became too small of a conference room.

JCK: I think everyone at the hotel thought I was crazy because I was like, "Oh, I just need a little bit more space."


And then they started seeing semitrucks. So my one little room turned into 10,000 square feet, 100 volunteers, millions of dollars in donations.

AG: Of the thousands of Californians who lost their homes, several were Jessica's colleagues.

JCK: That didn't stop them from volunteering or being a part of everything either, so ... I could not have done it without their support.

AG: Each year, Hilton's CEO presents the Light and Warmth Award to a dozen of their 425,000 team members. It's the highest honor in the company, given to people who embody Hilton's vision, mission and values.

JCK: I knew about the Light and Warmth Award, but I never thought that I would even be thought of.

AG: Experiments show that it's not just the recipients of recognition who end up performing better. Their colleagues do, too. Awards are not just a powerful way to show the winners that they're valued. They're also an important way to signal to everyone what's valued in the culture. A few months after the relief effort, Jessica headed to a meeting, where she was surprised with a phone call. It was Hilton's CEO. She hadn't just been nominated for the award, she won.

JCK: So they awarded me with one of those big obnoxious checks. But I looked at the other side and it said 10,000 dollars. And I was like, "Oh no, come on. This is a joke. Where's the camera," right? But as soon as it kind of hit me like, I thought, "How else can I help people with this money?" I can sponsor families for the holidays this year. I can donate some of this to rebuilds.

AG: One of the many people amazed was Jessica's dad.

Jessica's Dad: When I think back on it, just seeing all the work and caring that Jessie put into helping the entire community, I mean, that in itself makes up for any losses that we had.

JCK: It's just in my nature to help other people. That's why I love hospitality.


AG: Hilton was named Fortune's number one Best Company to Work For in the US, in both 2019 and 2020. And one of the best places to work for Millennials by the Great Place to Work Institute. Learn more at


AG: Procrastination is the opposite of productivity. It's wasting time, or at least using it pretty inefficiently. We've talked about how individuals can avoid that, but I also want to know what organizations can do about it, which might mean thinking differently about what it means to be productive. Rutger Bregman: I think the first question we should ask ourselves is "What is work, and what is productivity?" Nowadays, we say work is just this thing you do in a hierarchical relationship with an employer. You get a salary, you pay taxes over that, and that is what we call work.

AG: Meet Rutger Bregman.

RB: I'm a Dutch historian and author.

AG: And why do you feel the need to mention that you're Dutch?

RB: That's a good question. Maybe because the Netherlands is the country with the shortest working week in the world. And also, we have incredibly high productivity per hour. So it's actually a good example of my thesis that actually, if you want to be more productive, you've got to work less.

AG: How would you define productivity? What do you consider a really productive day at work? It probably has something to do with time and with output. How many hours you spent actually paying attention to your tasks instead of scrolling on Instagram, how many boxes on your to-do list you checked. But what if you redefine productivity?

RB: My definition would be work or being productive is just doing something that is valuable, that is useful.


AG: I like this. I think of productivity as using your time to accomplish things of value to you and others. Whether you use your time well depends on how much of it you have. Psychologists find that being busy, having less time, motivates us to finish tasks faster. We often procrastinate less when we have more on our plate.


And there's some evidence that people with multiple children are more productive at work than people with one or none. New studies suggest that parents are more absorbed in their job tasks while at work, because they know how much they have to juggle later at home. I guess the old saying is true. If you want something done, give it to a busy person.


Of course, your ideal solution to procrastination is not going to be having kids, or having even more kids. But this research suggests that when you have less time to complete your tasks, or more tasks to complete in a given time, it can curb procrastination by changing your emotions.

When you're busy, you're more motivated by fear and guilt about falling behind than whatever unpleasant feelings you have around the task itself. But when you have a lot of free time, you don't feel that urgency to finish. There's a name for it, Parkinson's law. The idea that work contracts or expands to fill the time available.


RB: I actually experienced this when I was working at a traditional Dutch newspaper. And I remember all those afternoons. I'm not very productive during the afternoon, you know. So around 4:00pm, I just want to start bothering my colleagues and making stupid jokes.

AG: Rutger has proposed what might seem like a radical solution to those episodes of procrastination — shortening the workweek. It's not as crazy as it sounds, because the whole notion that 40 hours is a magic number for productivity is kind of arbitrary.

RB: If you look at the history of this, it was Henry Ford, already at the beginning of the 20th century, who already found out that when he moved his workers to a 40-hour workweek, they were more productive. And he didn't do it because he cared so much about his employees. You know, he cared about his wallet. That was the reason why he did it. It was called the American way. Working less, it's the American way.

AG: And actually, Rutger points out that for more than a century, workweeks were getting shorter and shorter. In the mid-1800s, people often worked 70-hour weeks. Then, around the turn of the century, workweeks started dropping from 60 to 50 hours a week.

RB: And then after the Second World War, economist John Maynard Keynes said we'll have a 15-hour workweek in 2030.

AG: I promise this is going to tie back to procrastination. I'm just putting it off for a little while, because I want to know why we're working so many hours today. There are lots of possible explanations, from rising competition and globalization and consumerism to being obsessed with status at work, to just believing more is better. Whatever the cause, you'll be familiar with what the result looks like now.

RB: Probably, at this moment around the globe, there are millions of people sitting in offices, just waiting, browsing Facebook, sending emails to people they don't really like, writing reports that no one's ever going to read. I think we could easily move to a four-day, three-day workweek, and be just as productive. You just squash out all the slack that's currently in the system.

AG: How many hours do you actually work?

RB: I think about 50 to 60. If you would define my work as, you know ... Am I working right now? Is this work?

AG: (Laughs) I don't know, does it feel like work? Are you contributing something valuable to the world?

RB: Well, you decide that. (Both laugh) No, I find it very hard to define what work is for me.

AG: I wonder then, is there some degree of irony that a guy who works 50 to 60 hours a week is calling for a 15-hour workweek?

RB: Yes, it's very ironical, I know that.

AG: I also think I work more hours than you do in a typical week. And I've also called for shorter workweeks. So at heart, I wanted to know that I wasn't the only hypocrite out there.

(Rutger laughs)

RB: Yeah, we're both hypocrites.

AG: Yeah, but I think maybe the difference between our lives and the policy changes we're calling for is we choose to work this number of hours, right? I work as many hours as I do because I find my work enjoyable and meaningful. And what I want is for the hundreds of millions of people who hate their work or who find it extremely stressful to have the freedom to work less if they so choose.

RB: Yeah, and you could also frame it like this. I think that often, we need to work less in order to do more, right? To have more time for the things that we really care about.


AG: We should think about productivity not as the volume of output but as the value of output. And if we're going to do that, then we need to start measuring work in something beyond hours, which is starting to happen. Leaders are beginning to realize there's a big difference between working long hours and doing worthwhile work.


Finland's new prime minister has spoken in support of a four-day workweek and a six-hour work day. In the US, Shake Shack is trying out a four-day week for managers at many of their locations. And recently, Microsoft Japan tested the four-day workweek. Productivity climbed by 40 percent there. In part because of more focused attention, and in part because they got rid of unnecessary distractions by making meetings shorter. But my favorite example comes from another company that has gone to the extreme to help people use their time more productively. Even people who are chronic procrastinators. Jade Walker: I was definitely not employee of the year or anything like that. (Laughs) Just a whole lot of procrastination.

AG: Jade Walker has struggled with procrastination in the past. Maybe because she lives in a beautiful part of New Zealand.

JW: I'm based in Takapuna, which is a suburb of Auckland. It's, like, a beach town.

AG: Are you a surfer?

JW: No, I've got two little kids. (Laughs) So mom life is how I spend my spare time, chasing them around.

AG: But at work, she found herself getting distracted by another kind of surfing.

JW: Oh, I was definitely an internet surfer. Online shopping, talking to my friends. This is really bad, but I used to do our grocery shopping online and it gets delivered.

AG: I love the efficiency of that, though.

(Both laugh)

JW: My old boss probably wouldn't agree, maybe.

AG: Then she took a new job in estate planning, creating wills for people in the hospital and for navy soldiers about to deploy. Jade's new company, Perpetual Guardian, does something unusual. They offer a four-day workweek. New employees start out at five days, and if they prove their productivity in the first few months, they get to go down to four days. It had a big impact on Jade. JW: Every weekend, I get a screen time report. And it used to be horrendously bad. My husband would see it sometimes, and he'd be like, "Oh my God, you spend four hours on your phone a day." I'm like ... (Embarrassed sound) Yeah.

(Jade laughs)

But now, like during the day, I don't have time. So my screen time, I'm proud to say, is between one to two hours. A lot less, due to the fact that I'm being a lot more productive at work.

AG: Congratulations. JW: Thank you.

AG: It's one of the smartest motivators I've ever seen. If your productivity backslides, you go back to a regular workweek. If you're efficient and effective, the reward is that you get to work less. JW: Yes, that's a big incentive to not procrastinate. We don't have a lot of time to procrastinate anymore. You just sort of get in there and get everything done.

AG: It's completely changed her work process. Now, each morning, she spends 15 minutes planning her day. She color-codes emails and writes lists of priorities. All this helps her complete one task at a time and move on to the next one, instead of trying to do three things at once. Her productivity and her focus have improved. JW: Going back to five, I don't know what I would do with an extra day at work now.

AG: Grocery orders.

JW: (Laughs) Yeah, exactly, shopping, long breaks.

AG: Are you saying you would procrastinate, if you had a fifth day? JW: Yes, I probably would. Now that I'm used to getting everything done in four, I think I'd have so much extra time. So I probably would procrastinate, because yeah, I'd have to fill in the day somehow.

AG: You probably don't have the luxury of just deciding to work fewer hours. If you're an hourly retail employee, for example, your income will take a hit. But the shorter workweek is a bold demonstration that it's possible to manage our work lives differently, more efficiently. In any given moment, we will always have dilemmas about whether to work and what to work on. But take it from Margaret Atwood, the task you're putting off isn't always the one you hate. It might be the one you fear, the one that's ultimately the most worth pursuing. At least, that's how it was for "The Handmaid's Tale."

MA: I did try to write this more normal novel and it really just did not work out. So that was a signal that I had to write the batty one or nothing.

AG: If you're going to do the task eventually, you might as well spare yourself the agony and start it sooner.

MA: I call that "white rabbit syndrome."

AG: From "Alice in Wonderland"?

MA: "I'm late, I'm late, I'm late."

AG: "No time to say hello, goodbye."

MA: "That's it, got to go."


AG: Next time on WorkLife.

Conrey Callahan: This feeling of being trapped in this system where you're on, like, a hamster wheel. You know, you're kind of, like, doing a lot, but is it really changing anything?

AG: Job burnout seems to be everywhere. But it's not inevitable.


WorkLife is hosted by me, Adam Grant. The show is produced by TED with Transmitter Media. Our team includes Colin Helms, Gretta Cohn, Dan O'Donnell, Constanza Gallardo, Grace Rubenstein, Michelle Quint, Angela Cheng and Anna Phelan. This episode was produced by Jessica Glazer. Our show is mixed by Rick Kwan. Original music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton-Brown. Ad stories produced by Pineapple Street Studios.

Special thanks to our sponsors: Accenture, BetterUp, Hilton and SAP.

For their research, thanks to Tim Pychyl on procrastination, Max Bazerman, Katy Milkman and colleagues on want / should selves, Keith Wilcox and colleagues on being busy, Tracy Dumas and Jill Perry-Smith on absorption at work, and Bob Boice on scheduling writing sessions. And thanks to Candice Faktor for the amazing introduction to Margaret Atwood.


MA: OK, so here's the story. We were throwing a party at our house for some writers. And there they were, all milling around. And then this young woman, who was about 35, said she was having a heart attack. Then I called 911 and the paramedics arrived, lumpety-bump up the steps. I love paramedics. So in they come, and here's the conversation.

First paramedic: "Do you know whose house this is?"

Second paramedic: "No, whose house is it?"

First paramedic: "It's Margaret Atwood's house."

Second paramedic: "Margaret Atwood? Is she still alive?"

(Adam laughs)