Jimmy Breck-McKye

Developing opinions

In praise of procrastination

Soft light glows behind the curtains, hugging the wall. The air is cool, thin and still. Nothing stirs. Head tilted downwards, one sock on and one sock off, I am about to be late for work. But I would rather think about an argument I heard on the radio.

What exactly is procrastination? I like to think of it as a conflict between the superego and the id. I am supposed to do something and have turned my spirit towards it. But my body and emotions are quietly rebelling. What if they had good reason to?

Procrastination helps us take care of myself

Why was I procrastinating?

The obvious explanation is that I was just being lazy. I let my mind drift when it should have been fixed on its purpose, coursing relentlessly towards my goal like a shark stalking its prey.

But could there be a more humane excuse? Maybe I was stalling because I just hadn’t given myself time to get up. Maybe I was daydreaming because I can’t just switch from ‘sleep mode’ to ‘work mode’ like a robot vacuum cleaner. I need to get up earlier and enjoy my morning first. I have to to ruminate over what I heard on Radio 4’s Today Programme because that’s just something important to me.

So we might say my procrastination tells me I’m neglecting myself. I’m not getting up because I’m not ready, and rather than suppressing that perhaps I need to acknowledge it.

Procrastination is honest

A person procrastinating is just ‘being’. They are not moving towards any goal or change, and their reason for not doing so comes entirely from within. There is a kind of honesty to that.

What would we make of a person who could never ‘just be’, who was always on the go? I think I’d wonder if there was something wrong with them. Why can’t they be at peace with themselves? What are they distracting themselves from?

Procrastination can correct us

A person dithering is giving audience to a full and healthy range of emotions. Fear, doubt, tiredness, contentment - all of these can tell us something that matters, even if it’s not something we particularly want to hear.

A person on the go, on the other hand, is putting their trust entirely in their superego. They think that when the brain’s executive function says - you, run that mile! you, practice that guitar! - obedience is the path to happiness. But the superego has blind spots.

As a young man at Cambridge I lived and breathed my field and became almost possessed my studies. At age eighteen I had already decided that literary criticism was the only thing the world could offer my interest and every day was pledged to that end. I worshiped my cold, sharp will almost as much as my subject, and I lived much like a monk tending to his holy devotions. I ignored all my other needs and spurned the world quite proudly.

Naturally, it was a failure. No-one can live like that. My relentless studying and utter intolerance for personal failure sent me into a spiral of obsession, compulsion and exhaustion that almost cost me my degree. I had placed too much trust in my superego and not enough in the body and emotions that were trying to tell me to take care of myself, have a rest, be more than just a student.

How often have you thrown yourself into the wrong goal? Perhaps an impressive-sounding career that left you miserable? It’s likely your superego that got you there, but I bet it wasn’t your superego that got you out. The tension at the back of your neck, the cold drop in your stomach that tells you ‘this job is all wrong! this place is all wrong! all this, it’s all wrong!’ - that’s your id, loosely defined, and that’s what tells us to procrastinate. We should give it more credit.

Procrastination can be virtuous

I don’t trust my superego, because I know my limitations and how often my ambitions run ahead of them. And I’m not sure I trust people who can’t procrastinate, either, because people with neither fear, uncertainty nor self-doubt can be terrible individuals. One of the most productive and relentless men I ever knew was also a mendacious sociopath. He was as merciless with you as he was with himself.

But a person who does nothing but procrastinate might be living life dishonestly. If they keep deciding one thing and then quietly resisting they may be making decisions that tally poorly with their real needs. Maturity involves listening to your doubt, indecision and fatigue, taking them seriously, along with all the dreams and the commitments and the ambition, and reconciling them realistically.