The Angel of Procrastination is a thief

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 - 14:16

For most of us there is just too much to do these days and not enough hours in the day to do them — even with our long, summer days. The shed can get painted next week. Sometime after that we’ll take the broken lawnmower to the repair shop. The car’s oil change can wait.

One of my high school classmates wrote under his senior photo, “Procrastination is a relief.” In a strange way I identified with that quote because for a good part of my life I’ve been a procrastinator — one who delays and puts things off — sometimes until the last possible moment.

My dad used to say: “If you’re not procrastinating about something, you’re probably not busy enough.”

Ben Franklin wrote: “You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.” While most of our great thinkers found nothing worthy in procrastination, Mark Twain went against the grain with his comment: “Never put off until tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.”

Here’s an example of how an epic feat of procrastination during my second year of college resulted in grave consequences. The assignment for the Field Biology class — an upper division course which I had no business taking as a sophomore — was to monitor a plot of land for two months. On a weekly basis we were required to record the growth and changes of at least 15 species of plants.

Instead of dutifully going to the woods each week and making the observations, I would get some beer and go out there with friends, sometimes alone, and have a party. Plants were leafing out, growing and flowering all around me, but I wasn’t recording the changes. When it came time to turn in the paper, I had to reconstruct the plants’ growth and changes over that two-month period, including whether some blossomed with flowers and went to seed.

I desperately probed text books on Pacific Northwest flora to corroborate the observations that I was literally “making up” for that time of the year. It was a nightmare. I received a “D” on the report and eventually an “F” for the class — the first and last “F” I ever received. I’d enrolled in the course for the hikes, and didn’t realize I’d have to become a botanist just to receive a passing grade.

Procrastination reared its ugly head again when I was a seasonal employee with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. On the Alaska Peninsula it rained non-stop for about five weeks. The boss asked us nearly every day to bail out the boats, but throughout the summer the crew had become highly skilled in the art of procrastination. As Crew Chief, perhaps I was a bad influence.

We came out of the bunkhouse one morning after hearing the boss yelling loudly and discovered that two of the skiffs were nearly swamped and starting to drift downriver. We tied ropes around their bows and with one of the good boats, managed to start the outboard motor and drag them to shore so they could de-water. Our boss, a fisheries biologist, was generally a very even tempered guy. But he really blew up on us for that one, and I can’t blame him. For the rest of the summer one couldn’t find a drop of water in any of the boats.

Procrastination is a double-edged sword. It gives a person more time to think about a task or project, so they can refine and perhaps improve the way they approach it. But procrastination also offers more time to fret and worry about things — and that stress is perhaps the ‘thief’ intimated by Ben Franklin.

Organizing ourselves is one way of getting away from procrastinating. One strategy that I’ve used for a difficult task is to break it up into increments, or pieces, and attack each one separately. Climbing a mountain, for instance, is not a single project but a series of steps, or in the vernacular of technical climbers, “pitches.” I give a mountain’s physical features names and break my trip up into manageable chunks like “the ravine,” “the balcony,” “heavenly pass,” “the crux,” “connector ridge.” Getting to the objective, or summit, doesn’t seem as daunting when it’s broken up that way.

Of course, hiking and climbing are enjoyable and there isn’t much motivation to procrastinate unless the weather is bad and the knee is acting up. Who, for example, procrastinates taking a fishing trip? On the other hand, preparing taxes, paying bills, vacuuming the house, doing laundry, sealing the driveway--these are tasks that summon the Angel of Procrastination. Its presence is palpable throughout the house!

The Angel of Procrastination stealthily helps me cope with the growing list of chores. If I wait long enough, my wife will do them. But then the guilt settles in and I’m compelled to banish the Angel from the house…at least most of the time. It never goes away completely.

I’m sure there are folks out there who for years have wanted to restore that classic car, paint and re-floor the house, take flying lessons, visit a relative in the lower 48, quit smoking, compile a family photo album, write a book; but are held back by that evil harbinger: procrastination.

For me, it’s a book. I’ve been thinking about it for three years. Acclaimed writer Stephen King says “just sit down and start typing. It’ll work itself out.” That’s easier said than done, but I’ve discovered that in writing many of these columns, that’s how it works. Turn off TV, apply posterior to chair, start typing, and something begins to form.

In our minds we have a lot to do. We know we have a limited time to do it. We can plan, organize and prioritize. But in the final analysis it simply comes down to picking a task or project and just beginning. Once we get started, it seems to take on a life of its own. Soon we don’t feel like we’re alone as we push that rock up a mountain — that there is something helping us. And we all know how good it feels when we finally get started.

Lest I forget, in my last column I indicated the Seward Mt. Marathon race originated in 1905 — I was off by about 10 years. The storied barroom wager that started the race didn’t occur until 1915. I thought I’d get that correction in right away rather than “procrastinating.”


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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