The most surprising thing about this blog post is that I’m writing it. Right now. Instead of tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next month. That’s because I just finished listening to Andrew Santella’s 2018 book about procrastination, Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me.
In the book, Santella, a chronic procrastinator like myself, sets out to sort of find solace, maybe even justification, in the research into why we procrastinate, in the procrastinators of the past, and in gallivanting around the world to get up close and personal with the monuments to procrastination (literally in one case). That is, I think I’m safe in saying that Santella is sick of procrastination having such a negative connotation in our society, and in point of fact, Santella’s thesis is that procrastination is often one of our few ways of rebelling against a society that commands order, regiment, and productivity in a timely fashion. Procrastination is our middle finger to the God of Now.
But, of course, procrastination, all the usual joking aside, is decidedly one of the most anti-Buddhist concepts there is, much less to embrace it in any way, because it is anti-present. At least, anti-that-thing-I-must-do-in-the-present. Which makes it, in Santella’s estimation, an optimistic, and one could even say a faith-based, viewpoint because tomorrow is always there to be counted on — tomorrow we can get that thing done. However, where the destructive part comes in is that we all know we are going to die; thus our time is limited, and it would follow that to procrastinate is to self-sabotage our limited time on Earth.
Santella’s answer to that is that the mind’s way of thinking of ways to not do what we are supposed to be doing is one of the the greatest gifts we have been given — that it gives life its flavor. In other words, all is not lost, not even time itself. That in chaos, there is creativity. In messiness, there is beauty. In shirking our responsibilities to the “now,” there are new doors to walk through.
Of course, when you’re contrasting, as Santella does, the lives and accomplishments of da Vinci, Darwin, Frank Lloyd Wright, and others, it doesn’t exactly give me much solace. As he points out, yeah, they were all procrastinators in one way or another (Darwin procrastinated on the seminal work of his life, and our species, 1859’s On the Origin of Species, for 20 years because he was preoccupied with his love of, and fascination with, … barnacles), but uh, our form of procrastination is often to take a nap. So, it’s not like there is much gift in that, although I do love naps! But his point is taken that sometimes when I’m doing something else rather than the thing I ostensibly ought to be doing, some of my best work has manifest, and often related back to the thing I ought to be doing.
In other words, it’s that writing cliché of, even walking (or napping) is “writing” because it’s giving myself the space (and time!) to actually do the writing.
Let me hone in on Darwin for a moment because I would be remiss if I didn’t geek out. Admittedly, as someone who isn’t a science guy, but is fascinated by science, I don’t know much about Darwin, but consider: Darwin jotted down in his notebook “each species changes,” and with those three words, he changed the course of human events forever. I get goosebumps just writing that. Three simple words. From those three words, he came to understand the culling process of mutations, i.e., those that benefit (and allow those species to continue to survive), and those that lead to the downfall for a species, as the process of natural selection. Imagine arriving at this groundbreaking idea, one which Santella argues Darwin well-understood was as much, and sitting on it for two decades. What if he died before he could fully flesh it out?! I suppose that’s a mark against procrastination, or distractions! But hey, as Santella said, we all have our barnacles; our ways of doing everything but the thing.
The more important point, I think, in Santella sifting through history to find the procrastinators of prior eras is to prove a point that cuts against conceptions of our modern culture: Distractions have always been with us, and procrastinators have always been held captive by them. Distractions and procrastinating therein is not a phenomenon of the digital age, the internet, and apps in our pocket; nor is it even the phenomenon of 24/7 cable news and the radio; or the telephone; or on and on. Procrastinators have walked in our midst, being distracted by this or that, for centuries. We stand on the shoulders of giants of procrastination.
I think the worst stereotype, or negative connotation, associated with procrastination is that the person procrastinating is lazy. As a chronic procrastinator, I can feel the heat of the negative scorn when people call me a procrastinator, like I am messing up in some way. And Santella argues that this stereotype probably developed from the procrastinator himself, for after all, the procrastinator would rather you think they are lacking effort (being lazy) than think they are lacking ability. Because that is the worse charge of the two. It is the fear of not expressing one’s ability fully, and to its best capacity, that often stymies the start of something, leading to procrastination.
Leaning on British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness and Other Essays (where Russell argues, among other things, that a “great deal of harm” is done by those who buttress the virtuousness of work), Santella’s book is decidedly not an advice book (he detests those self-help books), but an apology in the nomenclature of the day, and an apologia, in the way the Greeks meant it, an “argument for” procrastination. He believes our culture is too geared toward productivity, embodying the cliché of “time is money,” and making us feel guilty for not doing the thing. For being a procrastinator. We are so uncomfortable with the thought of, well, sitting with our thoughts! Of being idle. Productivity. Efficiency. Go go go. However, arguably, unlike any other field, creativity sometimes needs that cauldron of idleness to blossom into something worthwhile.
Procrastinators tend to fall into two categories, Santella said: The procrastinator who can’t even get started, and the procrastinator who can’t finish, both sometimes afflicted with a desire for perfection. I tend to float between both. Sometimes I find it difficult to start (but once I do, it’s easy, which is frustrating), and sometimes I find it difficult to finish (I get so amped to start that the follow-through is often lacking). Interestingly, Santella said he’s a procrastinator who also partakes in to-do lists because there is something satisfying about crossing items off of a to-do list. Yet, I was thinking, I’m not a to-do lister because that’s just another thing to do! What tends to happen is, if I do a calendar, or a list, or whatever else, I tend to ignore it. Womp womp.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a shout-out to Roger Wayne, who read Santella’s book, and did a good job of conveying the casualness of the words. Santella’s book is easygoing, light, and humorous, although it does go deep in the nerdy woods on some of the historical procrastinators, and the research..
I’m not sure I quite get to where Santella is in terms of feeling vindicated by the past for my future procrastination of the present, and that procrastination can be a gift, and a virtue, but I also agree with him that procrastination has an undue negative reputation, and we shouldn’t feel so darn guilty about it. Freeing ourselves from that guilt is a worthy endeavor.
To that end, mission accomplished, Santella. I feel less guilty for now. Until next time.