Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me
March 12, 2018
Andrew Santella has written "An entertaining, fact-filled defense of the nearly universal tendency to procrastinate."
My basement is usually a mess. My wife and I moved into our house on the west side of Milwaukee just before our two children were born, and it has become the place that all of their old toys mixes with everything they grow out of and the detritus of my many (really, only mildly) ambitious projects in home improvement. The one time my basement becomes a little more organized is when I have something more important to do—something that I'd like to avoid doing. In fact, there is usually one or two big projects a year that I want to avoid so much that the place is almost sparkling. You see… I procrastinate.
Andrew Santella is also a procrastinator, so I'm imagining his new book on the topic, Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me, was accomplished many years after it was originally intended. I'm glad it has finally arrived, because it is entertaining and a salve to the worried psyche of those always seeking to do something—anything—other than the task at hand. And, it turns out, that is quite a lot of people:
My research turned up the same figures again and again: 20 percent of us are chronic procrastinators; a third of all American undergraduates call themselves severe procrastinators; a hundred minutes of every workday are dithered away by workers. […] What surprised me most, though, was how many people had dedicated themselves to studying procrastination. […] Whole shelves could be filled with popular advice books about beating the habit. Maybe the great paradox of procrastination is that it has spawned such a lively mini-industry, and that it keeps so many people so very busy.
That's one of the things about procrastination, though, isn't it? What Santella found in his research (which he admits he continued largely to avoid actually writing) is that "it helps to understand that procrastination has little to do with laziness." That is not just in those admonishing us not to procrastinate, but in those actively procrastinating. Santella's first great example in the book is Charles Darwin, who developed his simple, yet transformative idea that species evolve when he was still in his twenties, and then spent the ensuing decades of his life dissecting and studying barnacles before actually publishing it. Consider the case of Leonardo Da Vinci:
Today we are amazed by Leonardo's sketches for helicopters, submarines, and robots, but in his time his patrons mostly wanted to know when he would finally finish the portraits he had promised.
Leonardo Da Vinci, the man who painted what is widely considered the best and most well known painting of all time, "completed only twenty paintings in his lifetime."
But, if there are so many books about the topic already, why do we need another—especially when Santella clearly has other things he could be doing, like alphabetizing his record collection or shopping for Clyde Frazier's basketball shoes. There is one thing that makes his book delightfully different from the others: rather than convincing others that they could and should do something about their procrastination and helping them with it, he picked up the topic hoping to justify his own tendency to procrastinate. As such, it gets intimate, but with a dry wit that keeps it from being sentimentally so.
There are sections of other books, such as Adam Grant's Originals and Phyllis Korkki's The Big Thing, that speak of procrastination in an accepting—even positive—light. But this is the first I've come across as a full-blown, non-apologetic defense. It is cheeky, but it is also honest, and a healthy antidote to the cult of ambition and productivity that pervades our culture. Does this sound familiar?
I could always check my phone, my tablet, my watch to see if there is some urgent message to be read—but that would just be a distraction from my errand, which is itself a distraction from the work I'm supposed to be doing. And who's to say that my work isn't a distraction from something vastly more important? Who's to say that the daily scramble up the greased ramp of achievement isn't itself a pitiable delusion, on scales both personal and societal? I like to think that it is—especially on days when I don't want to work.
I don't know if that's the right approach to take, but I do agree with the author that some of my favorite experiences have come when I was putting off other, "more important" things. Every once in a while, I even get a clean basement out of it.
So, what are you waiting for? We have 20 copies available.