Read more from Slate’s special issue on procrastination.
There’s no question that procrastination in the workplace is an economic drag. People who step out for coffee or a smoke are, by definition, taking time off from work. And while breaks are frequently necessary to get the creative juices flowing, in this just-in-time economy of long supply chains and 24-7 operations, procrastination is an overwhelming economic negative. But if individual companies lose out when workers doodle on letterhead, send instant messages to their friends, or take frequent YouTube breaks, procrastination can sometimes be a zero-sum game. When you blow off your job, you may be generating sales for somebody else’s employer. The more time you waste, the more money someone makes.
Americans can invest in pretty much everything today—from Kenyan stocks to political futures—but it’s not yet possible to invest in procrastination. You can, however, buy shares in companies whose products and services encourage, abet, and enable time-wasting and delays. It may even be a good investment: Recent research suggests that procrastination is on the rise—30 years ago, just 5 percent of Americans were self-described “chronic procrastinators”; today that number is up to 26 percent.
Of course, the best deals are likely out of our reach in the private-equity market—you and I can’t yet invest in Facebook. And many of the other best time-wasters are embedded in conglomerates that make them far from pure plays—viz., MySpace and News Corp. But with the assistance of Slate’sstock research department (OK, a mass e-mail sent to Slatestaffers that generated mostly three-word responses), we’ve assembled a procrastinator’s portfolio, seven stocks that represent different sectors of the sultans of slackerdom.
Starbucks. The coffee break is perhaps the oldest and most enduring form of taking time off from regularly scheduled work hours. (An extremely obscure fragment of the Dead Sea Scrolls makes reference to the scribes repairing to Jericho for macchiatos.) While Dunkin’ Donuts bills itself as a pit-stop for people in a hurry, Starbucks invites procrastinators to sit for a spell, with its comfy chairs, Wi-Fi service, sweet snacks, and gentle boomer-friendly music (though Susan Tedeschi wailing Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” was enough to send me sprinting back to work). The downside: The stock performs poorly in slack economic times, as $4 lattes are an early casualty of penny-pinching.
EBay. The online swap meet is a procrastinator’s paradise. If the competing demands for your attention are preparing a quarterly report or browsing for used Steinway pianos, finishing a paper or taking a look through the 27,257 items on offer in the Home Art & Crafts category, it’s really a no-brainer. E-Bay is doubly levered to discretionary e-commerce spending: It makes money when transactions are completed on E-Bay or on subsidiaries like Stubhub, and the company cashes in again if the payments are processed by its PayPal subsidiary.
Altria. In the workplace, tobacco is second only to coffee as a time-wasting, consumable vice. Yes, cigarettes are expensive. But Altria, through its Philip Morris subsidiary, makes products to which its customers are physically addicted. That renders the company somewhat immune to the ups and downs of a consumer economy. By passing ever more restrictive laws regulating the time, place, and manner of smoking, society continues to impose additional costs on the use of cigarettes. Ironically, these barriers help make smoking all the more appealing as a procrastination mechanism. In New York, smokers who toil in office buildings must wait for an elevator and then clear security going in and out of the building. Forced to congregate with other smokers on patches of concrete, they inevitably engage in further time-wasting conversation. A single cigarette can easily burn up 15 minutes. Bonus: Altria owns a big chunk of beer giant SABMiller, whose products help fuel late-afternoon and evening time-wasting.
The New York Times Co. When the economy is in the gutter, when cash is low, and when the purpose of time-wasting shifts from blowing off work to blowing off the search for work, products that offer free or low-cost time-wasting opportunities become more attractive. And for procrastinators of the better sort, there’s no better outlet than the New York Times. Read the full contents of today’s newspaper (good for one hour of wasted time), check out the expanding roster of blogs, halfheartedly search for a job in the classifieds, or wholeheartedly engage in real-estate voyeurism by checking out condo ads. Later in the week, the crossword puzzle (available for a modest fee) can make the long acres of the afternoon pass by in the blink of an eye. Subsidiary About.com is also an excellent time sink. In the first quarter, while the consumer economy was in the tank, the New York Times Co.’s online advertising revenues rose a healthy 18 percent.
Apple. For users of PCs, time-wasting may be confined to playing solitaire. But iMacs and MacBooks, which generally arrive embedded with cool video features, offer lazy, creative slackers the ability to waste time by making movies and engaging in iChats—without having to buy and install new software. And in iTunes, Apple has developed the online equivalent of that increasingly rare time-wasting destination, the used-record store. Why work when you can explore and sample the 145 versions of “Danny Boy,” including a truly unfortunate rendering by Tom Jones!
Google. Google is one of our age’s great productivity tools. It’s also one of our age’s great counterproductivity tools. It’s simply too easy—and too tempting—to use the search algorithms to shirk the task at hand and look up your sister-in-law’s 10K results, the number of times your book has been mentioned in the past two weeks, what your high-school prom date is doing. Every time you waste time thusly, Google profits. In recent years, Google has aggressively moved to corner the procrastination market by acquiring Doubleclick, which serves up ads when surfers log onto sites, and by buying the ne plus ultra of procrastination: YouTube. Endlessly entertaining and best used at work, where broadband connections allow for trouble-free downloads, YouTube has replaced television as the most reliable source of nonedifying, time-consuming, daytime viewing activity.
Akamai. Here’s one of the central contradictions of the procrastination economy: As Web-surfers waste time by poking around the furthest reaches of the Internet, they don’t like to waste time. When Web sites are slow to load, when video seems to buffer endlessly without playing, these are the times that try souls. And businesses know this. So they turn to Akamai, the company whose “services enable enterprises, government agencies, and Web-centric businesses to deliver content and applications faster, overcome infrastructure obstacles, accelerate online initiatives, and minimize cost.” Translation: It helps procrastinators load their Sudoku games faster.