Procrastination is almost always presented as a negative act, a problem to be tamed, a character flaw to be furtively confessed. As someone who never does tomorrow what I can finish today, I’d like to present a different view. I have harbored secret admiration for procrastinators my whole life, because they’re comfortable rolling with last-minute changes and short deadlines in a way I fear I never will be.
I was the kind of student in high school who received her assignments, immediately broke them into smaller, manageable tasks, then dutifully counted backwards from the due date to record each one on my desk calendar with a blue Bic pen. At a time when my social life and hair were unenviable (the latter thanks to ‘80s spiral perms and Aquanet,) I craved the feeling of control and calm that came with seeing exactly what would be expected of me each day, checking each completed task off the list.Adolescence could feel like wading chest-high through peaty sludge, but at least my homework was always complete, and handed in on time.
I was probably extremely annoying to my classmates — scratch the probably, I’m sure I was — as I handed essays in early and goaded my partners on group projects to finish up a day before our projects were actually due. But that cool organization masked a dark flip side: terror that I’d forget something, or misunderstand an assignment, and have no time left to fix it. Adolescence could feel like wading chest-high through peaty sludge, but at least my homework was always complete, and handed in on time. If I lost even that small victory, I might succumb to the muck entirely.
I clung to the strategy through college, never once pulling an all-nighter. It only reinforced my sense that if I just planned well enough, I’d always be in control.
Then I landed in the work world. Oh, work world: the number of lessons you teach an idealistic recent college graduate knows no bounds.
For instance, your boss may give you a week to produce a presentation, and you may mark each day’s portion of work carefully into your leather-bound Filofax appointment book into which you’ve sunk a small fortune because you think it makes you look serious. But if the client’s travel schedule changes and now they are coming by the office tomorrow? Your presentation needs to be done NOW, screw all the stepwise planning (and good luck readjusting your to-do list for the rest of the week.) Or, you write a report that you think hits all the requirements you’ve been given, only to have your boss say, “You know, this is very helpful, but it makes me realize that what we REALLY need is…” and whatever that thing is, she needs it yesterday. Or those cross-functional project teams where planners and procrastinators are united in one dysfunctional mess, caught in the shorter and shorter timelines demanded by an increasingly fast-spinning corporate culture.
Procrastinators can take those last minute punches with equanimity, because they’re used to forgoing the luxury of time to ponder and analyze. And here is the biggest lesson the work world drove home: I’m not particularly good at thinking on my feet, and I probably take way more time on tasks than they really merit. Looked at from another angle, another word for procrastination is “efficiency.”
Somewhere along the line, I let go of thinking that planning everything to the nth degree was the ideal. I began to envy those people who said, “No problem changing the presentation we’re giving tomorrow with this additional request!” because they hadn’t even started yet. It helps that I fell in love with and married a procrastinator; throw him a last-minute curve ball at work or in life and he just shrugs, deals, and moves on, inspiring me to quell my urge to whimper and curl into a ball.
This is not to say that I’ve gotten in touch with my repressed inner procrastinator. When I saw the (last-minute) call by TueNight for submissions on this topic, the first thing I did was scheduled time to write it with three days to spare, so I’d have plenty of time to revise.[Editor’s Note: To clarify, we asked Nancy for the piece two weeks before publication date and she dubs this “last minute.” We couldn’t think of a better example to prove her own point.]
But I have been pushing myself to become procrastination-adjacent, reassuring myself that if I can’t finish a task up that I’d meticulously planned for today, I can probably still smoosh it in tomorrow if it’s important, and that disaster probably won’t strike if I have to move it to a day after that.
So for setting that shining example of sanity, my procrastinating friends, I thank you.