I’m all for doing a good job, and I never totally blow off responsibilities, but here’s the thing: If I spy an unscheduled sliver of time in my day, I am probably going to use it to rest, read 45 BuzzFeed articles about Friends, or watch all of my DVR’d episodes of Dance Moms in lieu of working on some required task that’s due the day after tomorrow. What can I say? Nappin’ and chillin’ are very appealing to me—especially so, it seems, when I should be working. In fact, one of the things that I do when I’m trying not to do whatever I’m actually supposed to be doing is stare at my nappin’, chillin’ cat with envy, genuinely hoping that I’ll someday come across an ancient talisman or incantation that will allow the two of us to switch bodies.
I’ll admit it: I’m a procrastinator. I dilly-dally and delay, and, as a result, have spent innumerable nights and early mornings wrapped in a duvet, chugging two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew like a madwoman while cramming German vocabulary into my brain or writing a 10-page research paper. I can pull off an all-nighter like a champ. Although doing this doesn’t make me happy, it also isn’t something that I beat myself up over—or at least I try not to.
If you’re anything like me, when you see people who don’t seem to have any problem getting things done—people who are organized, proactive, and accomplished, who balance multiple responsibilities with a McConaughey-ian breeziness—you may start to regard your inability to be more like them as an insurmountable flaw in your character. But it’s not! Though the word procrastination is almost always used pejoratively (I have yet to be complimented on my world-class procrastinating skillz), you don’t necessarily have to feel bad about yourself if you are a habitual procrastinator.
Contrary to the popular thinking on people like us, procrastinators aren’t necessarily lazy or irresponsible. I, for one, am totally driven and hardworking, but I still put things off till the last minute. I don’t think it’s because of lax morals or a weak work ethic—I think it’s because of my FEELINGS. For many of the dodgers, delayers, and deferrers of the world, it’s not that we don’t want to do what’s required or that we can’t do it, it’s just that our fears, anxieties, and (somewhat ironically) ambitions can be so overwhelming that they paralyze us and stop us from doing what we know needs to be done.
Everyone delays something, sometimes—like eating burritos, procrastination is an intrinsic part of the human condition, and doing it occasionally is not generally a big deal. I’m not some pro-procrastination activist; I’m not trying to justify my practice of putting off commitments. I don’t necessarily enjoy the stress of 11th-hour scrambling (though some procrastinators thrive on the adrenaline that comes with a tight deadline). Chronic procrastination—when putting off tasks basically becomes a way of life—can lead to missed deadlines and opportunities, compromise your professional and personal relationships (as constant delays are usually seen as inconsiderate, obnoxious, and a sign of irresponsibility), and/or jeopardize your happiness and health. That last one is a biggie: Procrastination often leads to high stress, which is harmful to your mental wellbeing and can hurt your immune system. Compounding all this damage, if you don’t address health concerns in a timely manner, the results can—worst-case scenario—be fatal.
So it seems to me that always waiting till the last minute to do everything is a lot more than a “bad habit.” Picking your nose or talking with your mouth full can’t kill you, after all! Procrastination seems, rather, to be an ingrained reaction to deep-seated emotions. Since shame is one of those emotions, it can only be counterproductive to feel ashamed of our tendency to delay—instead, let’s try to understand it.
Whenever I’m given a deadline, I always want to get to work right away, because I know how awful it feels to be all panicky with the Mountain Dew jitters the night before. But still, more often than not, I just can’t get started. One of the great mysteries of procrastination is that we do it even though we know full well that it will lead to stress and tears, and that the quality of our work might suffer. In his book The Procrastination Equation, the researcher Piers Steel offers an explanation for such irrational behavior: He says “the Achilles’ heel of procrastination” is impulsiveness. “Showing self-control or delaying gratification is difficult” for procrastinors, he says. “We just don’t have much ability to endure short-term pain for long-term gain.”
One time when I was in college, my best friend just out of the blue asked me to accompany her to Medieval Times. I went, even though I had to write a midterm paper. It was due soon, and I hadn’t done any of the reading for that class. I ended up finishing the paper mere minutes before I had to turn it in, which might have been exhilarating to some people, but was nightmarish for me. But when you’re impulsive, you act on emotions—all of the potential consequences of your actions take a backseat to what you’re feeling in the moment. Your long-term priorities, like doing quality work, being successful, and getting a reasonable amount of sleep every night can easily be obscured by the fleeting pleasure of eating a whole leg of oven-roasted chicken while watching fake knights joust in a fake castle.