It occurred to me the other day that procrastination is an illusion, one of mind’s many, many mirages. It lies not in not doing something, but in a gap between what I am actually doing and what I imagine I ought to be doing — a bottomless void that swallows time, mental energy, life force itself.
But what if my imagination is completely wrong — and what I am doing (even if I am doing nothing) is exactly the right thing for the moment?
I know a woman who once decided to conduct an experiment. Just for one day, she would actually do properly all the things she firmly believed she had to be doing every day but procrastinated about — a list of self-care routines and household chores compiled from various reputable sources, each of which made total sense at the time it was added to the list.
She freed a whole day for this experiment, but by the time she was done with her complete “morning routine”, the sun was already setting, at which point she decided to call the experiment off. It was just impossible to do everything on her list in one day; what she thought of as procrastination was just her body’s healthy response to the sheer absurdity of the list.
Had I paid more attention to this story when I first heard it, I might have perhaps avoided the trap of trying to force too many different activities into a single day, and then procrastinating about them.
Even before that, many years ago I used to work in a German University. The chair of my department was a very distinguished professor, highly respected in the field (despite his reputation for being somewhat eccentric, and occasionally hard to work with). His secretary believed he had but one flaw: he was always procrastinating about his mail.
He never opened any letters or packages in the course of a semester (when he had teaching to do). He just stored them all on a dedicated shelf without looking. And he had an end-of-semester routine for dealing with all the accumulated mail.
To begin with, he would throw away without opening everything that wasn’t addressed respectfully. Since this story took place in Germany, this meant that his name on the envelope had to be prefixed with all three appropriate titles: Herr Professor Dr. Johannes Schmidt (not his real name). Otherwise, it had no chance of ever being opened at all.
If they don’t care be respectful, he explained to me, why should I care about anything they have to say?
This done, he would then throw away everything that became irrelevant by the end of the semester (missed deadlines and the like).
How can something be important enough, he explained, if it ceases to be important in such a short time?
These two procedures would leave him with a manageable amount of mail to pay attention to. And that was it: a couple of hours twice a year, and he didn’t give it a second thought at any other time. He assured me this approach had never caused any problems, and saved an enormous amount of time and mental energy for real work and life (it had probably contributed to his aura of eccentricity, but he couldn’t care less).
So he wasn’t procrastinating after all, and yet it looked very much like procrastination to an outside observer firmly convinced that all mail has to be dealt with on the day it arrives (which is probably quite a useful belief in a secretary). And it would have been a clear case of procrastination had he been watching his growing heap of letters as anxiously as his secretary did, and berating himself every day for not dealing with it. It is this debilitating mental habit (which I know in myself all too well) that we call procrastination, not the simple fact of not doing something.
My professor didn’t “design” this routine. He just let it emerge and stabilise from the way his life was actually happening. In this respect at least, he simply surrendered to the flow of his life, and discovered that it was the most economical, and, when all is said and done, most rational, strategy.
Another lesson I missed at the time I received it.
What we call procrastination, and the accompanying waste of mental energy, is just another example of the mind’s futile attempts to fight with life, to try (and fail) to control and direct it instead of listening to it. Procrastination is a gift in disguise, a symptom of discord between the flow of life and the mind’s ideas about it, an opportunity to slow down and re-orient oneself.
For many years, I had been convinced that I am an extraordinarily lazy person. Then, gradually, I started to realise that perhaps I am not as remarkably lazy as I used to believe. And now, I am beginning to think that I have never been quite lazy enough…