The inclination to delay or distract oneself from an immediate task is almost primaeval. When something needs to be done, whether you’re a couch potato or an overthinking perfectionist, you will find some way to put it off. Even if doing so will backfire on you. Hence, procrastination is seen as a form of delusion or self-sabotage, a barrier to progress – criminal, indefensible. Scholars and the clergy have waged war on it, casting aspersions upon procrastinators.
So much so that, as writer Andrew Santella puts it in his book, Soon, “Even committed procrastinators can be deeply uncomfortable with the idea of not doing something, which is probably why our foot-dragging is sometimes called killing time.”
However, one of Santella’s aims with this book is to justify procrastination, his in particular: “I hoped that if I looked through enough history and enough scholarship I would be able to find some pretext or rationale for my habitual delay.”
A history of killing time
As a pro-time-wasting treatise, this book does the job beautifully. Among other things, Santella argues that procrastinators aren’t necessarily unproductive, and these diversions may even be necessary. By the end, readers will feel a bit better about slacking off. Occasionally, of course.
In his efforts to unpack and rationalise the practice of killing time and to trace its history, the author delves into the time-wasting tendencies of English naturalist Charles Darwin, Florentine polymath Leonardo da Vinci, and German physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, among others – including himself. In that sense, Soon is also the story of its own genesis.
Santella’s narrative starts with Darwin, who put off his work on evolution and spent two decades studying barnacles before finally publishing On The Origin Of Species in 1859. Then there’s Da Vinci, who dabbled in many fields but didn’t see a lot of his ideas through to the end. He left behind nuggets of ideas, some of which would become reality long after his death.
This theme recurs throughout the book. The career paths of the featured luminaries seem to have been diverted by other pursuits that, in the end, enriched their work and their lives while also making them more relatable to us mortals.
“Darwin is remembered because he was brilliant and diligent and tireless,” the author states. “But it is his delay that makes him so accessible to us, so human. … We all have our list of things we should do, things we must do. And yet we find some reason to not do them. In this way, we can claim some kinship with Darwin. We all have our barnacles.”
Distracting from the necessary
So one empathises with Santella’s struggle to complete this book, especially if one is a fellow procrastinator. “… the more enthusiastic I got about the book, the more impossible the writing became,” he admits. “I’m the kind of procrastinator who puts off longest that which most urgently needs to be done.”
Considering his previous gigs for prestigious publications such as GQ, Slate and The New York Times Book Review, one would think he might have learnt how to roll with it.
In his journey of (not) writing his book, detours include meeting with Prof Joe Ferrari, who he considers the “most prolific writer and researcher on procrastination”; visiting a church in New Orleans while exploring the history of St Expedite (or Expeditus); going to Pennsylvania to see Fallingwater, the house designed by American architect Frank Lloyd Wright; and pursuing Lichtenberg’s story in Gottingen, Germany.
Those detours seem to have paid off. What results is a brilliant, candid and quotable meditation on the dangers and delights of procrastination. The at-times meandering narrative embodies the quality being espoused but you won’t feel it much. At just under 200 pages, the book is easy to finish and just right for those looking for a diversion.
Take your time (even when correcting mistakes in subheadings)
One comes away convinced that, besides being a human trait we shouldn’t be ashamed of, procrastination could help us to cope with today’s frenetic pace and give us space to relax, reflect and maybe consider other possibilities.
“Just like the urge to travel springs from the desire to see what is beyond the bend in the road, procrastination starts with the recognition that there might be something, anything, better to do than what we’re supposed to do,” Santella writes.
“It is comforting to think that there might be something else to do, something better to do, even when we have no idea what it might be. Especially when we have no idea what it might be.”
If only the book’s message didn’t intrude during inopportune moments. Instead of meeting writing deadlines, for instance, one finds comfort in chores, the post-election news cycle, or the antics of a blind dwarf cat called Potato.
Then again, why spend much of your waking hours on work? Life is meant to be enjoyed as well; who knows how much time you have left? As Buddhist monk and author Ajahn Brahm would say. “Never do today what you can put off until tomorrow, because you might die tonight.”
Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu.
Soon: An Overdue History Of Procrastination, From Leonardo And Darwin To You And Me
Author: Andrew Santella
Publisher: Dey St, nonfiction, self help