Meaning to Get To: Procrastination and the Art of Life

By Kingwell, Mark | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

Meaning to Get To: Procrastination and the Art of Life


Kingwell, Mark, Queen's Quarterly


Staring at a blank page has been the bane of students, teachers, and writers for millennia. In recent years, the accusing blankness that stares back at us is more likely to be that of a computer monitor. But this still leaves the non-writer scratching away on scrap paper, allegedly making notes ... before succumbing to the urge to doodle. Of course there are so many other important things to do in order to pave the way for the final push, and every little bit of desktop straightening and pencil sharpening is bound to make its own contribution to the overall project ... but first, some coffee.

**********

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.

Thomas de Quincey, "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" (1839)

THE FANTASY was always the same. I would be watching television, usually sports, on the single channel that my non-cable ten-inch black-and-white picked out of the airwaves around New Haven during some dark days in the late 1980s. I'd see him: the guy with the simple job. The guy with no worries. The guy who stood at the top of the giant slalom run in Kitzbuehl, wearing cool sunglasses and a toque, who told the skiers to wait for the Longines countdown to begin. Or the guy whose only job was to drill the front right wheel's lugnuts as fast as possible during a pit stop.

I would envy this guy, whoever he was. I longed for the utter simplicity of his task in life. This guy, I thought, this guy's got it made, just doing this one simple thing that makes up his professional identity. He doesn't hesitate or stress. It's got to be done well but, in the ambit of human achievement, it's perfectly balanced, just demanding or dangerous enough to keep him interested without calling for the high-percentile skill-set of the actual skier or driver. I had no idea what sort of life path or educational profile brought you to one of those positions, couldn't at all judge the relative distance from my own arc, but I wanted to be one of those guys, wanted very much to be him instead of who I was. And that was mainly because I was a guy sitting on a crummy little couch in a chilly one-bedroom apartment, watching sports instead of writing a doctoral dissertation.

Stop me if you've heard this one: graduate student is procrastinating, avoiding work, fantasizing about life elsewhere or just, you know, life. Stop me, because then I won't have to go on, and that would mean I could do something else instead of what I ought to be doing. I don't know if graduate school in the humanities is an especially acute site of procrastination -- with one thing and another, I rather think it is -- but I do know that it has taken me more than ten years to get to the essay on procrastination I've been meaning to write since one of those Saturday afternoon epiphanies about my alternative life as an unconflicted ski-run functionary. A philosophy of procrastination cries out to be completed, I thought then, an examination of its peculiar phenomenology and ingeniously twisted logic. Its intricate mixture of self-justification and self-loathing. Its self-defeating spirals of defensible deferral. Its paralysing pleasures and subtle pains ...

And so on, sprawled there on the couch. This was a key moment of procrastination, in fact, because its essence lay not simply in avoiding what ought to be done, but in thinking of other things that could be done, even while not doing them. As all of its dedicated practitioners know, procrastination is far more creative than mere laziness, indeed is related only distantly to that passive affliction. Procrastination is very active, though not in the way that the reform-minded surgeons of procrastination would have you believe.

The stasis at the heart of procrastination's sometimes frenzied displacement is most often driven by the idea that there is too much to do, the important task or tasks too big to tackle. …

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