No trains were moving at Paddington station and passengers were being advised to go to Waterloo instead and take the slow train to rejoin the line at Reading. Given the length of the diversion, I asked one of the station staff if I’d be better off just waiting for the line to reopen. “Probably,” he said. “But people like to keep moving.”
How right he was. We do seem to find it hard to pause, wait or just be still these days. If I’m in any kind of queue, I find myself checking my phone for emails. It seems we behave according to the implicit maxim that doing something, even if it’s wrong or useless, is better than doing nothing.
It’s against this background that the meaning of procrastination has changed. The definition remains the same: putting off until later what you could do now. But when things moved more slowly, time for second thoughts was often built in: between the writing of a letter and the posting of it; between the thought of calling someone and getting to a phone; between deciding you like the sound of a book and being in a bookshop to buy it. Procrastinators were therefore people who had time enough to make a decision but still refused to make it.
Now, if you never put off until later what you could do now, you would hardly have any time for second thoughts on anything. So if you want to make good decisions, procrastination is no longer a failing but often a necessity. But our increasing intolerance for inactivity and delay means that we’re less willing to procrastinate, and more likely to see it as a fault. So although there are some chronic procrastinators among us, there are many more pathological actors.
Given that there has always been a suspicion that too much thought is paralysing, this is very bad news for those of us who see reflection as a vital component of the good life. To correct the hyperactivity of the age, perhaps we need to invert the wisdom of the past and insist that we should never do straight away what we could, without cost, put off until later.
Judging from the number of popular books available on time management, there are a lot of procrastinators out there. What are they avoiding? In extreme cases the answer may be, well, everything. From job applications to paying bills, nothing escapes their dodging and delaying. For most of us, however, it is more a question of uncertain priorities: we get on with things, just not necessarily those that matter most.
It’s this “mattering most” that can be tricky to spell out. If you are on an all-consuming mission to find a cure for cancer, your priorities may be relatively clear. Everything else comes second. But typically we juggle all sorts of things, each important in different ways – work or study deadlines, personal projects, household chores. So it may help to be clear about why getting stuck into a particular task matters and why you are avoiding it. It may be because it’s hard work, for instance, or you don’t really want to do it. If so, what are the costs of delaying?
If procrastination means leaving things that need to get done, it may seem negative by definition. But some room for a positive understanding lies in the haziness of “things that need to get done”. Do they really? If something is not urgent and you’re not sure what action to take, you may well benefit from letting it stew until either you have a brainwave or it becomes urgent.
Sometimes procrastination flags up ambivalence about a particular course of action. If you find yourself delaying signing on the dotted line, is it just understandable anxiety about a big decision, or is there something not right about the deal?
If, on the other hand, you are devoting a disproportionate amount of time to activities that are necessary but not that relevant to your life projects, there is a place for planned procrastination. You have to leave some things until later, simply because there’s no way of doing everything at once. In order to stop procrastinating over writing your novel you may need to start procrastinating on DIY.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in south-west England