By Sayantan Ghosh Jan. 22, 2018
One of the primary criticisms against procrastinators is that they’re usually an indulgent lot. But without indulgence, so much of the art that exists in the world today might never have been produced at all.
There’s such an unmistakable lilt as you say the word. It is defined as the act of postponing but I like another definition: the act of something to occur more slowly than normal. It is a perfectly nice word but for most people “delay” is a distressing idea, one that you resort to only when have has no other choice. I must confess that for me, though, it’s more often a choice than compulsion. I am meant to get something done and yet sometimes, I actively choose to save it for later.
I doubt you’ll find any textbook in any library in the world which will sing ditties dedicated to people like me. But you will find several books which will tempt you to believe that work is worship. Perhaps it is, but if there’s any lesson that we as a race should learn from religion and deities, it’s that devotion in excess is behind most large-scale destruction in history.
Even when teachers in school and parents at home were telling me, using every expression in their limited vocabularies, that the sole purpose of my existence was to grow up to be a “successful” man (their idea of successful was vague and invariably involved a business suit), my grandfather was whispering to me: “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.” It was probably not the most sound advice one could offer a 12-year-old, but it’s not too hard to guess which one of the two made a lasting impression on me.
Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat. Nobody can say with certainty who this particular quote belongs to – Lily Tomlin apparently used it in a gag in the 1970s, sports columnist Bill Cunningham wrote something similar in a column in the 1950s, humour columnist Russell Baker is said to have used it in the 1960s. Possibly 10 solid minutes of Google searching would give me the answer. Or not. But what strikes me is that all these people believed in the same ideology.
That’s pretty much what procrastination is like. Choosing what’s relevant in the immediate moment over a perceived future reward which might come our way if we be the good student in the class and follow all the rules. It is an ideology, not an indictment.
Procrastination has earned a bad rep. One of the primary criticisms against procrastinators is that they’re usually an indulgent lot. But without indulgence, so much of the art that exists in the world today might never have been produced at all. It appears that Leonardo Da Vinci was a famous procrastinator – even after having started the Mona Lisa in 1503, he is said to have not stopped reworking the painting until as late as 1517.
The Zeigarnik Effect, coined after the Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik, suggests that the mere completion of a task can lead to it being forgotten. Often, when we have a job on hand, we tend to rush toward the finishing line. Instead, if we try to forget the end for a while, keep the desire of completing the task alive, we may end up discovering newer ways of achieving the same goal – ways which could well turn out to be more inventive than the original. Imagine if the thousands of students in our schools and universities were not expected to memorise entire chapters from textbooks by pulling off all-nighters. They were, instead, encouraged to interrupt their work for a short while to, say, watch a few panda videos on YouTube. What would their quality of life be?
JRR Tolkien had said, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Because if you don’t wander or allow your mind to wander how will you ever stumble upon the unusual?
When I first wrote this essay, it was in the form of a conversation between two characters: Mind and Conscience. And even though I found it amusing that my editor thought otherwise. And even though I should have submitted this piece earlier, habitually I failed the deadline. I waited a week to get back to the writing desk but during this week, while researching something else which has no connection with this piece, I came across a note on the Zeigarnik Effect and instantly thought it could help convey my thoughts better. Deadlines are, of course, important. But anything with the word “dead” in it cannot have more significance in our lives than life itself.
JRR Tolkien had said, “Not all those who wander are lost.” Because if you don’t wander or allow your mind to wander how will you ever stumble upon the unusual? How will we ever rediscover the wonders of the universe? Procrastination has often been credited with destroying careers. But even the least evolved species in our food chain (whichever creature you attribute that title to) surely knows how to prioritise. Certainly then it won’t be too unfair to expect that as the creators of mega computers and flying drones, we as a race are able to estimate the actual urgency of a particular task.
For instance, if you’re in the middle of an asthma attack you certainly don’t need to be told that you shouldn’t wait for the perfect moment to arrive when you can pump the inhaler. But say, if the presentation on <INSERT UNINVENTIVE CLIENT NAME HERE> is in another couple of hours and you really really need to read something by Zadie Smith right away, then there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to.
When my grandfather was in his 30s, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and during those days it was considered a life-threatening disease. The little money he made as a school-teacher and my grandmother made as a homeopathy doctor wasn’t sufficient to afford the most sophisticated treatment which might have been available. But seeing my grandmother distraught with their two children by her side, he apparently told her that he would try to delay his passing for as long as he could.
Perhaps it was only to console her during a moment of weakness but he managed to postpone his death by almost 40 years. During this time, he lived a slightly inadequate but a reasonably fulfilling life. His lungs slowly failed him with each passing year, but breathlessly he learned to travel, love, share, fight, and make up with her without too many complaints.
I’d like to think that even when it came to his appointment with the Grim Reaper, he procrastinated. I could learn a thing or two from him.
Sayantan was born in Calcutta and currently lives and writes in New Delhi where he works as an editor. He has a degree in economics but probably doesn't know where he has kept it.