Stop Procrastinating (Right Now!)

I meant to have this post up first thing in the morning. What happened? An […]

David Zahl / 9.30.14


I meant to have this post up first thing in the morning. What happened? An email here, a phone call there–the trailer for the new P.T. Anderson film (with Joaquin Phoenix channeling Dennis Wilson!) isn’t going to watch itself–and here we are, late-afternoon. The feeling is not a good one. It sounds so silly on paper, and indeed, if you subscribe to anything like a hierarchy of suffering, few things seem more trivial than procrastination, so much so that to write about it inspires, well, more procrastination.

I once heard procrastination described as the battle between Want and Should, one where the ‘W’ usually goes to the W. As much as we might try to unite the Want and Should in our various endeavors, they never seem to stay that way very long. Which isn’t to suggest that the division is ever a clean one. I enjoy writing about this stuff after all, and those little tasks were certainly on the to-do list. The Wants and the Shoulds have a funny way of switching hats on you, don’t they?

Cue Anna Della Subin’s article, “How To Stop Time”, in which she discusses the increasingly widespread phenomenon known as ‘chronic procrastination’ and people for whom that conflict has become genuinely consuming and/or painful. Apparently the American Psychological Association estimates that 20 percent of American men and women could qualify for the affliction, and the numbers are rising. Subin provides a short history of the term–not surprisingly, ‘procrastination’ as such appears to have arisen since the Industrial Revolution–and some theories for what accounts for it (spoiler: The Cult of Productivity tops the list). But things get truly interesting when she describes a conference she attended on the subject:

As we entered the ninth, grueling hour of the conference, a professor laid out a taxonomy of dithering so enormous that I couldn’t help but wonder: Whatever you’re doing, aren’t you by nature procrastinating from doing something else? Seen in this light, procrastination begins to look a lot like just plain existing. But then along come its foot soldiers — guilt, self-loathing, blame…

The stigma of slothfulness remains. Many of us, it seems, are still trying to enforce a military-style precision on our intellectual, creative, civilian lives — and often failing. Even at the conference, participants proposed strategies for beating procrastination that were chillingly martial. The economist suggested that we all “take hostages” — place something valuable at stake as a way of negotiating with our own belligerent minds. The children’s author writes large checks out to political parties she loathes, and entrusts them to a relative to mail if she misses a deadline.

All of which leads me to wonder: Are we imposing standards on ourselves that make us mad?

Procrastination as epidemic — and the constant guilt that goes with it — is peculiar to the modern era. The 21st-century capitalist world, in its never-ending drive for expansion, consecrates an always-on productivity for the sake of the greater fiscal health…


As we never tire of pointing out, anytime we’re dealing with guilt–especially in relation to something as ostensibly asinine as procrastination (did she really call it an ‘epidemic’?!)–more is going on than meets the eye. Some standard of righteousness, or Law, is at work. Meaning, if people tend to feel more guilty more often about procrastinating than cheating, say, or lying–which I suspect they do–then clearly Productivity has replaced Goodness as our measure of Righteousness. Which will come as news to absolutely no one.

Of course, ‘justification by work(s)’ may be reaching arbitrarily absurd (technologically-assisted) heights at the moment, but it isn’t peculiar to our times, nor is the ‘high anthropology’ that goes along with it. As the next section of the article makes clear, procrastination almost always involves an unrealistically high view of our own potential productivity–one that ignores all the irrational mechanisms that tend to stand in our way. An inflated anthropology (the promise you can, theoretically, do it all) delays surrender in the battle of Should vs Want, sometimes indefinitely, keeping us captive to the paralysis that so often accompanies it:

Being in bed is now no excuse for dawdling, and no escape from the guilt that accompanies it. The voice — societal or psychological — urging us away from sloth to the pure, virtuous heights of productivity has become a sort of birdlike shriek as more individuals work from home and set their own schedules, and as the devices we use for work become alluring sirens to our own distraction. We are now able to accomplish tasks at nearly every moment, even if we prefer not to.

Still, humans will never stop procrastinating, and it might do us good to remember that the guilt and shame of the do-it-tomorrow cycle are not necessarily inescapable. The French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about mental illness that it acquires its reality as an illness “only within a culture that recognizes it as such.” Why not view procrastination not as a defect, an illness or a sin, but as an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers?

Certainly a bit of compassion for our inner-procrastinator would do us all some good. And re-conceiving our dawdling as an act of resistance against the Law of More More More sounds nice, too. Lord knows that particular little-l law needs all the deconstruction it can get. Seeing the Command to Produce in its naked cruelty and counter-productiveness can sometimes ameliorate the guilt we feel by not living up to it. Thus our endless posts about this kind of stuff.

And yet, sometimes the guilt remains–the ‘not-enoughness’ hangs on even after we’ve shot holes in whatever form of ‘enoughness’ we’re aspiring to. We can know in our heads that the Cult of Productivity is a shifting social construct, the particulars of which are bound to be supplanted by something else eventually, but that has embarrassingly little sway over its emotional impact. Just try telling someone that the Command to Be Thin is a fiction–even if they agree with you, which they would have every reason to, it rarely if ever reduces their sense of condemnation. Something more is required.

Perhaps it is in these moments that talking about an immovable Law of God can be helpful. If we truly believe that, contra Foucault, goodness and health transcend our ability to stigmatize them–that they are a matter of reality as much as morality–then a sense of falling short is written into our DNA. It may be more easily agitated in certain situations than others, but it is ultimately inescapable.

This is both scary and reassuring. Scary in that we are robbed of the ability to rationalize (every one of) our failings along contextual lines and sidestep unwanted value judgments. But reassuring in the sense that, while our guilt may latch onto any number of the pathologies embraced by the culture in which we live (a culture comprised exclusively of other sinners), we are not crazy for struggling with a core sense of not-enoughness–or for hoping, against hope, that God does not procrastinate when it comes to paralyzed men and women but meets them in their failure to do/be as they Should with a love that surpasses deserving. Who knows, in such an unflattering light, impossible standards may appear to be less a cause for insanity than gratitude.

Don’t ask me to write a thank-you note, though. I’ve still got last Christmas’s to do.