Have you ever:
- neglected to thank someone for a gift or act of kindness for so long that you feared running into that person by accident?
- felt simultaneously ashamed, enraged and mystified at your inability to get to work on an assignment with a deadline?
- promised yourself a hundred different times that you would start (or stop) doing something the very next day, without ever actually starting (or stopping) it?
If you can relate to these kinds of experiences, well…. Welcome to the human race.
I’ve met very few people who are not bothered from time to time — some more frequently than others — by their inclination to procrastinate. I myself have reached the point on several occasions when I semi-seriously weighed the alternatives of admitting that I had not yet written an article I had promised to someone and throwing myself off the nearest bridge. It was, in fact, during an episode like that I first conceived the idea of writing about procrastination. I knew even then that I was not the only person in the world who suffered from it, but it was not until I began to do some research that I discovered how widespread the problem actually is.
The original focus of my exploration of the subject of procrastination was the development of a one-hour program for CBC’s long-running and excellent documentary radio series, Ideas. What I wanted to investigate was this: If so many people experience procrastination, fight it, try to live with it, find they cannot avoid it – if it is, in short, perhaps, a human inclination, something that has perhaps even evolved in us – can it be entirely bad? Might there not be a good side… even, perhaps, some benefits?
The Ideas program was several months in the making, and during that time almost everyone to whom I mentioned the project, which I had confidently named “In Defense of Procrastination” from the start, seemed eager to hear the program; a surprising number even volunteered to contribute to it. Everyone seemed to relate to problems with procrastination. They loved the idea that there might be some justification – better yet, more than one – that might help them live with themselves as procrastinators. They greeted with even more enthusiasm the prospect of acquiring solid arguments that might help them to defend themselves from the range of reactions (ranging from disapproval to rage) of the people with whom they lived and worked.
They were also, of course, keen to learn how to avoid ever getting themselves in a situation where they’d procrastinate again.
In addition to getting them into trouble with other people – or at least making them fearful that they would – their tendency to procrastinate evoked feelings in them, as it does in me and probably you as well, of guilt and pain. It made them feel as though they were lazy.
Granted, Thomas De Quincey said:
If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. (“On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” 1827)
But surely this was written tongue-in-cheek? It is not human nature, at least under normal, peaceable circumstances, to commit murder, or to steal. It is, in my experience, human nature to procrastinate.
(to be continued. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and responses.)