Americans have always told themselves they have a lot of work to do: first, to tame the continent, and later, to build a world safe for democracy or to get filthy rich. Those who don’t contribute to this national, God-given mission, and instead shirk their responsibilities, deserve whatever fate befalls them—sickness, impoverishment, death. For there is no honor in procrastination.
I couldn’t disagree more, despite the great risk this admission brings to my future employment—and perhaps even the fate of my immortal soul.
Puritan theology, after all, considered procrastination a sin. Jonathan Edwards preached in the early 1700s that those who delay doing good works “flatter themselves that they shall see another day, and then another, and trust to that, until finally most of them are swallowed up in hell, to lament their folly to all eternity, in the lake that burneth with fire and brimstone.” Think about that the next time your gutters need cleaning.
Prim Americans during the industrial age believed procrastination stunted economic and moral growth. In his 1901 book Up from Slavery, the African American educator Booker T. Washington procrastishamed “a young man, who had attended some high school, sitting down in a one-room cabin, with grease on his clothing, filth all around him, and weeds in the yard and garden, engaged in studying a French grammar.” Because the young man was doing something frivolous when there was real work to be done, Washington said that this scene was “one of the saddest things” he had seen in the rural post-Reconstruction South.
We still moralize about procrastination, but now we do it scientifically. Classical economists assume that everyone wants to maximize productivity and minimize waste, and so they are baffled by people who understand the cost of delaying a task, like studying or filing income taxes, and nevertheless put it off. Why, these economists ask, is the present so much more valuable than the future?
Psychologists argue that procrastination expresses self-doubt, the original sin of the therapeutic post-Protestant age. We delay our work because we fear failure. To the future-oriented striver, the consequences of doing so are dire. Joseph Ferrari’s 2010 book, Still Procrastinating? The No-Regrets Guide to Getting Things Done, warns that the “self-sabotaging tendencies” that lie behind procrastination “can prevent you from reaching your full potential.”
To all these meritocrats, procrastination is an obstacle to all worthy ends (success! purpose! mindfulness!) and must be overcome. But procrastination isn’t a failure of morals, reason, or self-confidence at all. It’s actually a healthy response to unhealthy conditions, a sane means of coping with a more collective societal failure.
As believers in the centuries-old myth of the self-made, entrepreneurial hero, Americans think of procrastination in individualistic terms, as an inner struggle between duty and temptation rather than as the result of broader societal forces. But if procrastination really is an individual matter, then why has it become a bigger “problem” in the postindustrial, digital age?
In a much-cited article from 2007, the psychologist Piers Steel writes that “problems associated with procrastination and lack of self-control appear to be increasing,” as studies reveal much higher percentages of Americans who self-described as procrastinators in 2007, compared with in 1978. Steel expects such problems only to grow more acute as jobs “become more unstructured or at least self-structured” and “availability of temptation” increases online. Steel further points out that we don’t only procrastinate in our work; last-minute Christmas shopping increased fivefold in the 1990s.
Are we changing—becoming less disciplined and more distractible over the past few decades? Or could it be that we only think procrastination is bad because we have internalized problems with the way our economy operates?
As the labor force shrinks but the amount of work that (supposedly) needs doing remains the same, work is compressing to occupy more of the time and space of a smaller number of workers. A typical worker may only spend eight hours at the office, but because so much of her work is as portable as her brain (and tablet), she can give attention to it at any time or place: while riding on wifi-enabled public transit, on the couch just before bed, or in the bathroom.
Furthermore, as postindustrial work becomes more abstract, the link between productivity and reward grows more tenuous. If it’s hard to tell whether a worker is doing a good or bad job, or if productivity does not depend on individual effort, or if the work is not really productive even at its best moments, then there is no rational reason to try to produce more. The worker who completes tasks ahead of schedule may in fact just be assigned more work.
What if people don’t want to be more productive, or don’t want to fulfill their potential, and what if they’re right not to? We hold productivity up as a supreme virtue now, but there have always been other things worth aiming for: pleasure, wisdom, or holiness, to name a few. What if the disutility of work—its boredom, constraint, and physical discomfort—weighs heavier in the balance than productivity? If you know you’re going to be paid the same whether or not you work diligently, then you may as well minimize the time you spend on tedium.
Procrastination, then, is not a failure of will; it is instead a rational way to safeguard self and sanity against work’s expansion. In the absence of other limits, like a reasonable workload or a strong union contract, procrastination forces work into a corner, bounded by self-preservation and a deadline. Procrastination protects leisure, however diminished by guilt, against the tide of work’s domination of our lives.
The challenge is not to stop procrastinating; it is to procrastinate well and without guilt. Clicking through listicles is better than nothing, but it doesn’t qualify as the true leisure that the German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper claimed was “the basis of culture.” Writing in the aftermath of World War II, Pieper feared that capitalism and communism alike would impose regimes of “total work” on their societies and thereby turn human beings into mere functionaries. Leisure, encompassing all that cannot be monetized, from the arts to worship, must be our priority.
The young man whom Booker T. Washington scolded, the one who read French and had a messy yard, is a model for better living through procrastination. He perhaps knew that you could spend a lifetime weeding and never be done. Thorns and thistles are a fact of the world, and pulling up the tallest of them just reveals smaller ones, creating more work with diminishing returns. Cultivating the intellect will offer greater rewards.
So unless you are a firefighter (or the restaurant chef preparing my meal), you could probably stand to procrastinate better. Give it a try this week. Find something you would genuinely rather do than your work, something that will engage and gratify your mind. (Pieper, betraying his occupational and religious biases, recommended contemplation.) Do it at your desk, if you can get away with it.
Once you’re done, and while you’re still feeling good, take on the task you had put off. At the end of the day, declare it finished. Then go home.