Belfast Telegraph

Mary Kenny: Procrastination may well be the thief of time, but it's often also the midwife of creativity

Decision deferred: putting things off can work to your advantage
Decision deferred: putting things off can work to your advantage
Douglas Adams

By Mary Kenny

Procrastination, 'tis said, is "the thief of time". "Never put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today," we are prudently advised. Duties are "put on the long finger". Decisions are "kicked into the long grass", while a procrastinating process of "kicking the can down the road" takes place.

More procrastination arises when there is more choice. People in the past were frog-marched into decisions and regimented into lifestyles. The factory horn sounded at 8am. The meal was on the table at 1pm. If you missed the bus, you walked. If you didn't gather in the harvest, you starved. If you don't accept this marriage proposal, daughter, you might never get another one. We have more choice now, so we are freer to defer all kinds of decisions.

An agony aunt who deals with etiquette questions receives more complaints about invitees failing to RSVP than almost anything else - as when a hostess is in despair with the caterers because more than half her invitees haven't confirmed whether they're attending or not.

But it's not just bad manners that causes such procrastination. It's also choice. People are keeping their options open for a future date: they may also be waiting to see if something better turns up.

I read an article recently in which a young woman was writing about "errand paralysis" affecting the millennium generation - they can't seem to get everyday tasks done because of a feeling of "burnout". But while young people live in an insecure world where jobs and housing are concerned, varieties of choice may be a contributing factor to this burnout. If there is only one brand of toothpaste, you just take it. If there are 22, you spend time costing and comparing.

Consider the dating game, as pursued via social media. You can swipe left or swipe right, but always with the thought that there might be a better choice on offer. And then there's the distraction of social media itself. Why knuckle down to doing your taxes when you can be on YouTube or Twitter?

Yet procrastination isn't always a bad thing. An American survey analysing procrastination - Soon by Andrew Santella - suggests that procrastination can play a significant part in the creative process.

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Darwin discovered the secret of natural selection 20 years before he published his findings - possibly inhibited by his wife's religious scruples - but there was also a great deal of dithering, burying himself in studying barnacles. Perhaps an idea does need time, mulling over, marinading in thought while taking long walks.

Leonardo Da Vinci, too, seemed to be faffing around before finishing a commissioned work, but he was such a multi-faceted genius that his mind was going in a dozen directions simultaneously, inventing the concept of everything from the helicopter to the ultra-sound scan.

The German poet Rilke, who suffered from depression - you would if you'd been in the trenches of the First World War - came to the conclusion that putting things off can be part of a maturing and reflective process. He suggested that an accomplishment can be "the last reverberation of a great movement which takes place… in those days of inaction."

Jack Kerouac launched the Beat Generation by rejecting the Protestant work ethic's insistence on duty and punctuality.

When author Douglas Adams died, he was 12 years behind with a book deadline.

Ah, deadlines! A compelling deadline is, surely, the antidote to the procrastinating urge. Writers have often referred to their procrastinating habits - sharpening pencils, cleaning the desk - but journalists have cause to be grateful for the discipline of the deadline. When I was a young reporter, a lad - known as a 'copy boy' - would stand over you awaiting delivery of the words on the page as the presses readied to roll. (The "deadline" itself, Santella writes, dates from the American Civil War and "a marked perimeter past which no prisoner could venture without risk").

The deadline is a huge incentive to overcome procrastination. There are therapists for procrastinators - a conference on procrastination in 2015 attracted 180 researchers into the problem - and one remedy is to penalise yourself for procrastinating past a deadline. Interestingly, chronic procrastination is also linked with impulsiveness.

The other antidote commonly used in the struggle against procrastination is the daily list. You make a list of things to do, and tick them off as you do them. It is satisfying to append the tick, but people can become slaves to the list.

Everyone puts off chores and duties they don't want to face. Sometimes, by deferring a task, it sorts itself. I have delayed responding to letters, and by the time I've got around to doing so, things have worked out.

And the RSVP procrastinator isn't always being rude: sometimes you don't quite know how you will be fixed for Tuesday the 12th. Sometimes a half-procrastination step can help: you can't get around to doing the whole chore, but you might be able to do some of it.

We need a little downtime from the tyranny of to-do lists and general duties and obligations. The "thief of time" can also be the angel of dreams and the midwife of ideas.

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