Letter to a Young Procrastinator
Some last-minute advice from a veteran slacker.
Read more from Slate's special issue on procrastination.
Seth Stevenson chatted online with readers about this article. Read the transcript.
No. You couldn't. That kid will grow up to be a powerful politician or business leader. You won't.
And that's OK! Some of the kindest, most interesting people are pretty lazy, and not at all powerful. Take da Vinci: He was totally awesome, despite—as my extensive research suggests—being an easily distractible scattershot. His very strength was that he allowed his mind to wander where it pleased, instead of always locking into the task at hand. Sure, maybe you wouldn't want da Vinci as your air-traffic controller. But you'd definitely want to have a beer with him—am I right? And despite his problems knuckling down, the guy produced oodles of brilliant, imaginative work. Which is where my advice comes in.
Stop resisting and embrace your procrastination. Don't agonize in front of a blank computer screen. Don't sit around for hours—intending to start your work any moment now—only to find that in the end you've accomplished zilch, save for ruining your own day.
You could instead, for instance, work on a small, tangential aspect of the assignment. Some weird take on things—one that doesn't make you miserable. This may be of little direct application, but there's a chance it could also pay off, kick-starting a new line of thought or adding nuance to your final result.
Or, better, take a walk outside. Read a book for pleasure. Roll a spliff and share it with a friend.
You're going to procrastinate anyway, so you may as well enjoy the time you're stealing from your tasks. While that grind in your econ class is toiling, you're becoming a more relaxed, quirkier, less-programmed person. You nurture the creative sprouts that take root only in long hours of idleness. You're open to soulful experiences that lie only beyond the bounded worlds of work and study.
Of course, this is all dependent on there being a deadline waiting at the end of your walkabout. For true procrastinators, nothing gets done without a deadline. As we say in journalism: The deadline is your friend. And when that deadline looms too near to procrastinate any longer, you need to take care of business. Crank it out, baby.
Executed correctly, this method is in fact terrific practice for maintaining your cool in stressful work environments. Pressing deadline anxiety can be channeled into an extreme level of focus. If you can train yourself to complete your assignments under pressure, quickly and efficiently, you will always find yourself in demand.
OK, fully bumping up against the clock here. Time to get this thing to my editor. A few important questions remain, so I'll attempt to answer them in our waning moments together:
1) Could I have done a better job on this assignment if I'd started sooner? Quite possibly.
2) But would I really have used that additional time to my advantage, instead of just doing the crossword and watching Gilmore Girls reruns? Very doubtful.
3) Am I crazy good at Guitar Hero III? Oh my, yes. I'm money on the multibutton combos now, and I can even nail some of the faster solos. You should come over and play some time. Maybe bring that spliff.
Your shiftless amigo,
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.
Illustration by Alex Eben Meyer.