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If not now, when?


National Procrastination Week is supposed to begin today, although it could easily be put off until later.

I flatter myself that I am quite good at procrastinating. I’ve put off many things for most of my life, and I’m glad I did — or rather I’m glad I didn’t. For example, I’ve been intending to write a novel, get piano lessons, and learn the French subjunctive tense for over fifty years, and I’m happy to say I’ve decided not to do any of these things. The novel and the piano would have annoyed a lot of people, and the French subjunctive would never have done me any good at all.

An old proverb — probably one of Ben Franklin’s – says that “Procrastination is the thief of time.” But that’s the reverse of the truth. A skilled procrastinator never wastes a minute on pointless or premature activities because he never starts.

The COVID years have been a gift to procrastinators everywhere. The pandemic was an excuse for putting off almost everything: unwelcome visits, meals at expensive restaurants, long distance flights to nowhere, and even going to work. While the pandemic was at its height procrastination was seen as a virtue and a sign of social responsibility.

Historically, procrastination has been seen as a weakness, but in fact it is always a strength. If Napoleon had put off invading Russia in 1812, or Hitler had hesitated before invading Poland in 1939, a vast amount of loss and misery would have been avoided. You may be able to think of other examples. The opposite of procrastination is precipitation, which my dictionary defines as: “Impulsive action, rush, or haste.”

Some people seem to live in a perpetual hurry. There are very few things that really need to be done right now: cardiac resuscitation, flipping an omelet, feeding the cat. Everything else can wait. Procrastination is not idleness. It is an antidote to the furious, neurotic desire to do everything right now, whether it matters or not. Mark Twain gave us the golden rule: Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.

Procrastination happens when we can’t decide what to do, or whether to do anything — in other words when we are thinking. We share this habit with the higher animals; just watch a cat trying to decide between two comfortable places to sleep. The cat is thinking about it. He may think about it for hours.

Procrastination is a product of the fact that we think. It’s not strong or brave to rush into things without thought or hesitation, it’s just stupid. This is especially true of big, dangerous things like double bacon cheeseburgers with fries, international wars and marriage.

When I was at school, teachers accused me of procrastination practically every day of my life, which was fair enough. I always preferred (and still do) to wait awhile before doing boring things like Latin homework, on the entirely rational grounds that nobody but priests had any use for Latin, and I was not cut out to be a priest. That’s not indecision, and it’s certainly not laziness: that’s the brain doing its job. A moment’s thought will reveal that most of the things we imagine we should do immediately could be done later or, better still, not at all. When it comes to procrastination, it’s never too late to start.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.