Monday, April 30, 2012

Now or Later? Or Not at All?

Procrastination doesn't number amongst the cardinal sins - pride, greed, lust, envy, sloth, gluttony and wrath. Towering rages, affairs, boastfulness, jealousy and covetousness all carry an unmistakable whiff of 'wrongness' - they are the stuff of ethical lapses and poor judgment. Every religion and culture spins cautionary tales around these acknowledged vices and we grow up knowing that they represent decidedly thin moral ground.

Stacked up against these transgressions, procrastination seems to be a minor failing at the very worst. Perhaps even a necessary coping mechanism for those contending with crowded calendars and over scheduled lives. It is an irritant - no more, no less. Which makes me wonder why worthies across the ages, ranging from Martin Luther to Abraham Lincoln to the anonymous authors of smug proverbs have asked us to guard against it.

There's no denying that procrastination is pervasive, more common than we'd like to admit. It's easy to convince ourselves that procrastination is the sign of a reasonable Ego at work, one that is merely distinguishing between the essential and the unessential. It's prioritization rather than postponement. But the truth is that procrastination represents nothing so much as the momentary triumph of the Id over the Super Ego. In procrastinating, we are Yielding to Pleasure rather than Performing our Duty. We know this, which is probably why procrastination is so closely tied to guilt (manifested as occasional murmurings which soon acquire a more strident tonality). 

In putting things off, we are buying time - to do something else, to do something more interesting, or to do nothing at all. But procrastination is insidious. We most often postpone tasks that are tedious and mundane - whether it's paying bills, visiting dentists or fixing faucets - just the kinds of inconsequential things that have the capacity to bring daily life to a grinding halt when left undone long enough. Before we know it, we have bought time only to lose it. We come away from these experiences believing that we've learnt our lessons and will be more prompt. Next time.

Why do later what you can do now, especially when you know you shouldn't? Because delaying gratification is very rarely perceived as being its own reward. Are procrastinators pessimists, forever thinking that now is a bad time to start? Or are they optimists, thinking that the future will be better suited to the accomplishment of a task? The only way there may be through, but who can say when is the right time to begin? There's no time like the present - but for what, exactly?

Its no wonder that in this country at least, people can be found consulting pundits and astrologers to get a fix on auspicious planetary alignments. The biggest commitments - the ones we're most likely to try to buy time for, to re-assess and re-think - take place on the dot, as per cosmic schedules. After all, there's no keeping the universe waiting. If only that principle applied to humbler but no less essential deeds, but unfortunately, in these matters we have only our judgment to rely upon.  

Sinning is about choices - right or wrong? Should I or shouldn't I? Deciding whether to do something now or later also tests our fiber. Not to the same degree, perhaps, but with greater frequency. By that measure, procrastination ranks among humanity's evils - little, but potent in its own way.   

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