While deeply in the process of procrastinating, journalist Andrew Santella jokingly pitched the idea of procrastination itself. “Hahaha, right?” When charged with actually writing it—Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me hits bookshelves this month—Santella discovered there’s much more to procrastination and procrastinators. “Once I dove into the research, I found a meaty topic that raised a lot of important questions,” he says. We asked just a few.
Okay be honest: how long did it take you to write this book?
Only three years, so I wasn’t too bad. Like a lot of procrastinators, I tend to overrate my procrastination—that is, I think I’m a terrible procrastinator when in fact I’m pretty diligent. One thing I heard again and again when telling people what I was writing was, “Oh, I’m the world’s worst procrastinator.” Everyone thinks they’re the very worst, so there’s tough competition for that spot.
Historically, are there any contenders?
Penelope from the Odyssey is a procrastinator; she didn’t want to deal with her suitors so she put them off by weaving her cloak. Darwin took 25 years to write up his theory, and Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t stay focused on one task at a time. He would routinely start something and then get distracted and never finish. Procrastinators of course love these examples of people from history who did great things very late in life. These stories are very comforting to procrastinators.
Isn’t that just about everyone?
From my research, yes, it’s a fairly universal impulse. Some of us have it worse than others, and for some people it’s a very serious problem that messes up their lives, work and relationships. For most of us, it’s an ever-present dilemma that we wrestle with. Just putting something off is not so bad; a more precise definition of procrastination is putting it off knowing that doing so will bite you later.
Why do people procrastinate?
Each of us has his or her own answer—in my case, I probably have 200 answers. A lot of times I do it because I’m afraid of the project, not just failing but succeeding too. Other times I’m ambivalent; I don’t know what I should do at the moment so I choose to do nothing. This is even observable in the animal world; sometimes when a bird encounters a rival, they don’t fight or flee, they just peck at the ground.
Is it ever straight-up laziness?
I would strongly make the case that procrastination has very little to do with laziness; that’s a big-time misconception that I hope to help dispel. Most procrastinators are very busy and active people, and since they can’t be busy and active on the right thing, they go do the wrong thing instead. There’s a great line [from writer Robert Benchley]: “Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he’s supposed to be doing at that moment.”
How can procrastination-prone people do the work they’re supposed to do?
You could go to any library and find bookshelves full of books about curing procrastination. There are all sorts of hacks to address it—like setting up the night before, or the Pomodoro Technique where you reward yourself for work with breaks. All this is proof of how freaked out we are about procrastination, but we shouldn’t be. Procrastinators are some of the most fascinating people in the world.