On ProcrastinationIf good things come to those who wait, what happens to those who keep others waiting? A slightly overdue defense of procrastination.

On ProcrastinationIf good things come to those who wait, what happens to those who keep others waiting? A slightly overdue defense of procrastination.

"Procrastination is the symptom, not the disease."

The irony of this essay is implicit in its subject: Not only did I procrastinate before writing it, but everyone reading this essay—with the exception of my editor—is procrastinating by reading it. There is something better you should be doing. By something “better” I mean something utilitarian: paying bills, finishing homework, cleaning dirty windows, getting a colonoscopy, etc. From this claim arises several assumptions:

First, we only procrastinate that which is both painful and necessary; we wouldn’t procrastinate throwing ourselves on a hot spike because we would never do so. Unless hot-spiking was for pleasurable ends, in which case we wouldn’t procrastinate.

Second, what is necessary is often painful: paying bills, finishing homework, cleaning dirty windows, getting a colonoscopy, etc.

Third, doing painful, necessary things as soon as possible, i.e., precrastination, is more virtuous than procrastinating.

These assumptions are self-evident; I only listed them for emphasis. The war against procrastination is as familiar as the war on death: both are constant and futile. Mary Todd Lincoln referred to procrastination as her “evil genius.” Benjamin Franklin—always good for laconic truths spiced with the occasional wink-wink— said, “You may delay, but time will not.” Pablo Picasso warned, in his usual understated manner, “Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.” I agree with all of them. I agree but I don’t care to stop procrastinating because I enjoy procrastinating. I don’t care about the studies measuring how miserable or happy test subjects claim to be when waiting to perform difficult tasks versus starting those difficult tasks, and I don’t care about the fines accrued by filing taxes late or the 401(k) contributions missed due to delaying retirement planning, because people ultimately do what they want (assuming they’re fortunate enough to live a mostly autonomous life), and if a financial and/or existential penalty is the price of putting off uncomfortable necessities, then it’s a price set by the consumer. Blaming procrastination for the things that don’t get done is like blaming overeating for obesity; it’s general enough to be true but too easy an explanation. Procrastination is the symptom, not the disease. The story goes that someone asked Hemingway what the best method was for writing a novel. A stupid question deserving of a lethal answer, and Hemingway didn’t disappoint.

“First you defrost the refrigerator,” he supposedly replied. Of course defrosting refrigerators has nothing to do with novel-writing but we know what he meant. The painful (for everyone), necessary (for writers, at least) task of writing a novel requires procrastination. We procrastinate until we’re ready, and if we’re never ready, well, we were never going to write that novel anyway.

One argument against this essay is the Calvinistic response: Procrastination is a sign of weakness and indicates a lack of discipline. This brings us back to the third assumption, that pre-crastination is a virtue, that doing what is painful and necessary as soon as possible demonstrates character. My Paganic response: Attaching morality to time-management is the equivalent of a perfect attendance award, a consolation prize given to self-righteous prigs who believe the universe keeps score. Fruit falls when it’s ripe, truth is confirmed by inspection and delay, there are no honors too distant to the man who prepares himself for them with patience—in other words, we’ll get to it when we’re ready.

In other words, if we procrastinate our colonoscopy and we get colon cancer, it might be tragic and it might be selfish, but it was our decision. You can’t complain about the bill when you sent it to yourself.

You are reading a complimentary story from Issue 22

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