In Praise of Procrastination

As I sat there over Thanksgiving weekend thinking about the million things I should be doing instead of watching the Buffy marathon, I realized that there was a way I could at least get something out of my procrastination. I could write an essay about it. Not my usual self-castigating discussion of procrastination and the horrors thereof. No mention, this time, of how much I really should have gotten work done and didn’t, and now have to stay up late to really get everything done. No, not this time.

This time, I want to explain why procrastination is a good thing.

Admittedly, that seems a little counterintuitive. Sure, most of us procrastinate, but we’re also not generally proud of that fact. Not that we don’t keep doing it – and not that we don’t relish it while we’re doing it. But the very definition of the word is that we’re not doing what we should be doing.

And I’m here to say that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Part of the importance of procrastination, and of reveling in it, is that we’re so trained to think in terms of productivity. We have a need to be useful – not just well-oiled cogs in a machine, mind you, but personally productive. Max Weber talks about this in his seminal book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Salvation through works. We work because we believe we must.

And there’s nothing wrong with calling that into question.

Honestly, I don’t know what I’d do if I wasn’t working. I love what I do, most of the time anyway. But sometimes, my brain goes on overload from the interminability of academia. All I want to do is watch re-runs of Buffy or play computer games, or something equally useless. Back when I was doing secretarial work, work that I didn’t love, procrastination was escape from the boredom of inputting entries into the database of customers who wanted catalogs, because even though it had to get done, I would’ve rather written a letter to a friend.

I bet she'd be happier if she learned to enjoy procrastination

It’s interesting that, when it’s work I love, my procrastination is doing “useless” things, but when I don’t love my work, my procrastination is the one thing I’d call worthwhile – after all, years later, the letter to the friend made more of a difference to me than the database ever did. I can’t just work all the time at one kind of task – whether I think it’s worthwhile or worthless. I need the useless things in my life as much as the useful ones – and it’s worth thinking about, too, that the words we usually use to talk about this all relate to the production of value – worthwhile; worthless; useful; valuable; productive – all of which brings us right back to the Spirit of Capitalism. Things and people are defined by their usefulness and value, and we’re so deeply enmeshed in our particular economic system that we don’t notice how much our thinking is linked to economic production and structures.

And to be honest, I’m having trouble writing this without coming back to the idea that procrastination is good because it’s useful. It’s hard to get away from our market-linked thinking, from the idea that what I must do as a person is produce value of some kind – that I am worthwhile only if I am worth something. Because even as I was engaging in “useless” activities of procrastination, I was thinking about how I could transform them into an essay, turn them useful.

So maybe it’s more about transforming what use and value mean, how we evaluate what is worthwhile. I’m writing this essay because I like to write, and maybe a few people will read it; it doesn’t seem useful in an absolute sense, but it’s important to me, because I enjoy it. And all our conceptions of usefulness and value tend to leave so little room for having fun – the famed pursuit of happiness – that maybe the value of procrastination lies in the attempt to bring enjoyment and pleasure back into our idea of what is worthwhile.

And heck – procrastination is what I’m doing right now, after all.

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December 6, 2001

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