Read more from Slate's special issue on procrastination.
We already know plenty about how college students and office workers waste time: They check e-mail, send Facebook status updates, and—ahem—read online magazines. But what does procrastination look like for everyone else?
Today, we present a glimpse at the panoply of American procrastination. What happens when a cowboy puts off tending to his cattle? Do astronauts ever procrastinate aboard the space shuttle? What about forest rangers, or imams, or United Nations peacekeepers? What about U.S. federal Judge Richard Posner?
“There are things I do to avoid getting down to brass tacks and really working on a role. Like, instead of reading over my script and doing all the hard analysis, I’ll go, ‘I should put together a playlist for this character!’ But later, when I’m backstage during the run, I might listen to that playlist on my iPod, so it does end up being useful.”
“Procrastination as an air-traffic controller would be a bad thing. If we make mistakes, people’s lives are at stake, so I don’t—can’t procrastinate on the job. Management does, though. … Usually, if I’m working a sector and it gets really busy, I split it up with another employee. But we’re so understaffed now that I can’t split it up and my hours have gotten longer. … We’re having a staffing crisis where we can’t split off sectors to do our jobs safely. My employer—the FAA—has procrastinated over the last five years when it comes to hiring new trainees.”
“All your time is pretty much scheduled, so procrastination really isn’t an issue. [When I was on the space shuttle,] we had a flight-activity plan, and each crew member had a column that told them what they were supposed to be doing at each moment. … We were on the clock roughly 14 hours a day. On science missions, the plan was typically broken down to the five-minute level. It even got to the point where we had to schedule breaks to use the facilities, because it wasn’t on the timeline, and if you did something not on the timeline, you got behind. … I’m a natural procrastinator, but you can’t extend the flight, so you only have one chance to do things right. But having a timeline and a thousand people watching you helps.”
“One thing some tellers do is take time and reface all the money to make sure it's all facing one direction. They also put the new bills at the bottom of the stack, so they give the client the old bills. They just like to have the new bills.”
"If there's something you have to do, a major thing would be to sit there and clean the steam wand over and over again. Sometimes, you have to clean out the grease trap, or clean out all the nasty, spoiled milk in the fridge. ... But the slacker's going to be the one who's staring out into space and wiping the steam wand up and down, up and down, and every once in a while shooting the hot air through to get out the gunky stuff."
Bat boy (MLB)
“The ballpark is the best place in the world to procrastinate. You’ve got a huge stadium to play with. We’d play catch on the field, all kinds of stuff. Play any sort of game you can come up with—pretending to throw balls at the crowd. We’d do a lot of things involving sunflower seeds, spitting them, flicking them, trying to kick gum all the way from the dugout to the field. ... We had one batboy who used to sneak out to the bullpen to nap. Sometimes we brought the relievers beer out there.”
New York, N.Y.
“Every GPS locator has a very specific code to it, and we have access to a lot of codes that are not necessarily available to the general public. … So if the client is in a six-hour meeting, and there’s an agent upstairs with him and some guys are waiting in a motorcade downstairs, they might play with the equipment while they’re waiting. You can pick up all kinds of radio frequencies from all kinds of different agencies, so sometimes they’ll listen in on conversations, just for yuks. … But it’s certainly the exception, not the rule.”
Las Vegas, Nev.
“Some of the things we do kind of push off are what are called butler-lot assignments—we have a spa, and you’ve got to restock the spa, you’ve got to polish the glassware. But we also have teamwork, so if someone’s on glassware and they’re not getting it done right away, all it takes is for someone else to start polishing the glassware and it makes you think, Oh, I better go do that.”
“When I was working in counterterrorism, there was always this mountain of information at your fingertips. … It was always pretty shocking to me just how deep the abyss of information actually was. It’s like the Internet times four. It was hypnotic; you could just get lost in it. I’d tell my girlfriend, ‘I’ll be home for dinner,’ and then all of a sudden it’s 8 o'clock and I’d still be sitting there, bleary-eyed. You could easily become obsessed. … There was always that potential that just by sort of noodling around, you could come across something that other people hadn’t noticed, which made it really compelling. It’s a different kind of procrastination, I guess. Like, ‘I’m going to procrastinate now by chasing a different terrorist.’ ”
“I did the New York Times crossword puzzle when I didn’t want to face the tough issues, or when I just wanted to have a few sane moments. … It was a bit of a joke in the Clinton administration, because Clinton did the crossword puzzle every day and was very fast—so sometimes, if you were around the White House, you could get a clue from him if you were stuck on something. ... One [other] thing Cabinet members procrastinate on is appearing before Congress. That whole check-and-balance system built into our Constitution can feel a little rough sometimes. I once had to testify for seven and a half hours straight.”
“I don’t know if I’d call it procrastination, but there’s a certain kind of person who just loves to be out moseying among the cattle. And that’s just kind of literally what they do—they just walk their horses all through the cattle and make sure they’re all content. … And if the cattle are out in the fields and they have good, green grass, then there’s not really anything a cowboy has to do except be a good observer. So it’s a laidback kind of deal."
Los Angeles, Calif.
“I sharpen my knives. It’s fun, mindless and pretty convincingly justifiable. The perfect procrastination tool!”
“One big thing we procrastinate on is tanning. We have to have color, because our uniforms are really light. But we have practices five times a week, and you don’t want to go in to practice smelling like tanning stuff—you’re already sweating, and you can’t spray and go to practice, anyhow, because it’ll all come off. It’s just disgusting. So you wait until 24 hours before the game, and then you go lay in a tanning bed for 10 to 12 minutes—just to get your body warm—and then you go right into the spray area to get sprayed. And then you can’t shower for eight hours, so you go home and you stink and you smell, and the next morning you’re all dark.”
New York, N.Y.
“I hate doing maintenance work—cleaning compressors on refrigerators, that kind of thing. I always find a reason to do it later. … One thing I really enjoy doing is taking care of the cheese in the cave. I love going in there and babying all the cheeses, turning them over, making sure they have straw mats. … It’s a perfect way to kill some minutes at the store if I don’t feel like doing something more pressing. … Building and rebuilding the display is something I [also] get too into. It’s this weird Tetris game, it’s never perfect. I spent an hour or and hour-and-a-half every morning; I kind of obsess over it.”
“If I’m up on a roof I like to take in the view. Out on one of the beautiful row houses in downtown Boston, you can see the whole skyline, and it’s beautiful. You feel like a bird, checking out everything. … I often get carried away with the explanatory part—chitchatting about how chimneys work to avoid the pipe part.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the balloons are a waste of time, because the children pop them so quickly. They have play swords and dogs and cats, and they pop somewhere along the line. Or someone bites one. … But I’m artistic and love face-painting, so I do that first, and kind of extend that part of the job.”
Kansas City, Mo.
“We make our money two ways: onstage and with table dances. … I’ve seen girls just sit in the back and complain—they’re like, ‘Oh, these guys are assholes, they don’t want any dances, I’m broke,’ and da-da-da-da-da. And I’m just like, ‘OK, you just don’t want to sit out there and talk to these guys,’ which is what you have to do. You have to conversate—you have to be friendly and fun and all that crap, and if you don’t want to do that, you probably aren’t going to make that much money."
“When you’re on the job you can’t really procrastinate, because you’re getting bossed around by so many people—you’re sort of their bitch for that day. … The procrastination comes in on a day-to-day basis, with castings. … If it’s an open casting and you know there’s going to be 300 people there, you can probably ditch out."
Baton Rouge, La.
“On a fire scene, the fun part is putting out the fire—ooh, squirting water, pulling out the hose lines, all that. ... After the fire is the nonfun part. We’ve got to pick up the hose, clean all the equipment, and put it back on the truck. You can’t leave the scene till that’s done. But some of the guys will wander over to the service unit, lollygag over there, drinking water and Gatorade, while the other guys are putting the stuff away.”
“We’ve got 340,000 acres in eight different areas, so I have to be out on the grounds a lot, checking to see if we’re having problems with noxious weeds, or if there are trails that need maintenance, or if we’re having some kind of motorized trespass with ATVs breaking the wilderness boundaries. So that’s a routine part of my job, but it’s also a great excuse to procrastinate. If there are things that I probably should be doing that I don’t feel like, I can say, ‘Oh, I need to go up to Big Blue Creek and make sure everything’s OK.’ And then I’ll hop in my truck and go hiking or skiing or something.”
Morgan City, La.
“I’m not afforded that luxury, because I’m in the type of profession where everything has to be planned right now. It’s like planning a wedding in two days. I procrastinate on eating and stuff like that. … And when there aren’t funerals to be planned, there’s the house to keep up, so we’ve always got stuff to do for that: There’s death certificates to process, cars to clean and fill up, paperwork to fill out, there’s watering the lawn, all of those wonderful things."
“I’m distracted by brightly colored things flitting around, like small bugs and birds. Recently I saw a small winter flock of cedar waxwings that hadn’t broken up yet. They were eating berries from the holly tree on the property, then going to the creek to get a drink. It was a wonderful cascade of color.”
“Part of our training is just to sit and distill our thoughts by gazing at things. Procrastinating is one of the things we try to be aware of. And not to do. I don’t really procrastinate.”
Hip hop MC
New York, N.Y.
“Procrastinate makes what should go first go last and wait. … What you postpone is most prone to call back on the ghost phone. ... A major source of procrastination for me is listening to the newest releases, finding out what’s going on in the hip-hop world. … But as my wife says, it’s kind of the MC’s job to be a fucking slacker and think about bullshit.”
"I procrastinate on doing laundry or changing out the diaper pail. … I go on the Internet a lot, that's what most moms do. … I go on baby chat rooms and read posts from other moms on every question you could ever think of asking. There are always controversies. Do you vax or not vax? Do you circumcise or not circumcise? Is piercing your baby's ears a form of mutilation?"
Sayed Hassan Al-Qazwini
“I always have something to read; therefore, I feel like my time has not been wasted. ... I have my own books, or I have my favorite newspaper—though I will not tell you which one and keep it as a secret. I’m joking. My favorite is the New York Times. … I read in two languages, in Arabic and English, mostly books on religion or history and sometimes even fiction. … I love memoirs. Probably the last one I read in English was President Clinton’s My Life. I read it and found it interesting. I also recently read Paul Bremer’s My Year in Iraq.”
New York, N.Y.
“Sometimes, when the kitchen is too busy, I’ll intentionally keep people at the bar to give the kitchen time to get caught up. So I procrastinate on seating people just to keep the flow of the room moving better.”
Mascot (Jack the Bulldog)
“I had my own private dressing room with my own private mirror with those little white light bulbs. At halftime, I always had a sandwich from Booeymongers, and I’d be late coming out for the second half because I was eating that sandwich. Yeah, that definitely happened. Sometimes, during the game, I would go back in the dressing room, take my face off, and eat the leftovers of the halftime sandwich, hang out, catch my breath. Yeah, I did that quite a bit. Just left the court for two or three minutes at a time.”
“When I moved here, I got really into painting all the walls, and getting all the stuff I wanted, and making my Web site and business cards really nice, without actually doing anything to generate clients. I still do that to some degree, because who wants to promote yourself? It makes me uncomfortable. … I try to make myself the best massage therapist I can be, but if nobody knows that I’m good at what I do, it’s totally irrelevant.”
New York Times columnist
New York, N.Y.
"Right now we’re in this new building, and we have huge, huge, huge glass walls—my office has three walls made of glass. I’m on the 13th floor, and right next door they’re building this office building. There’s this crane that dangles things outside my window, and I sit there imagining scenarios wherein something comes smashing through my window. We talk about it a lot here in the office. It takes up quite a bit of the day, but I don’t know what I’m going to do when the building is finished. Maybe I’ll be able to look into their windows."
“[It’s not like Grey’s Anatomy.] There isn’t much time for flirting or socializing. There’s nothing that thrilling—we have a Starbucks in our hospital, and if you have time to get a coffee in the afternoon, that’s considered exciting.”
“I spend an inordinate amount of time selecting the song for my MySpace page. It’s really just set up for my books, but I get obsessed with showing my stellar taste in music across the decades. It’s probably really annoying to anyone who has to get an update every time I make a change to my page. …You take someone like Shakespeare—if he was writing with a computer, we’d be lucky to have four or five sonnets and maybe one play.”
New York, N.Y.
“The biggest [way P.I.’s procrastinate] would be creative uses of Nexis. I routinely Nexis myself and people I know using the person locator, which you're really not supposed to do, and just see how much info on you or your friends comes up. … Another specifically P.I.-related procrastinatory activity is going back through the divorce and domestic dispute court cases we sometimes pull for these fund managers and reading through all the salacious details that are usually outside the purview of our investigations, at least in name.”
New York, N.Y.
“If I have to forecast, or do a reading, that’s not usually something I procrastinate on, because people need those things. Somebody else’s need will usually push through any kind of procrastination. So if someone’s in trouble, or if they’re having a health crisis, their energy motivates me. … I have a community of people I feel responsible for. There are always people writing me e-mails, or they want more meditations, so I try to follow their energy. I do what gives me energy first, and once I’m in a centered space, it’s easier to tackle some of the things that seem more challenging—like expenses.”
"People always e-mail me stuff like, 'Oh, Rabbi, you should see this article,' or, 'Click on this YouTube link, there’s a funny Passover video.' The job itself provides opportunities for wasting time. Personally, for me, YouTube is one of the most treacherous locations on the Web … You can get in there and not be seen for a week."
Race car driver
“I spend about 20 days a month either in transit or on the racetrack, and the biggest challenge for me is staying organized with all my travel expenses. I’m famous for just packing 1,000 receipts into a plastic cover and then walking around with it for six months. My finance guy is always on my case to file things in separate categories and submit them once a month. But usually it gets to a point where we’re coming up on the end of the fiscal year and I just have to sit there up to my eyes in receipts for 12 hours.”
Reality show contestant
New York, N.Y.
“They took away Internet access and cell phones ... so we couldn’t procrastinate in the usual ways. We watched a ton of movies, and went to the gym. … When they wouldn’t let us off the lot to go the gym, I’d literally run up and down stairs, or run around in circles, to blow off steam and try to come up with ideas.”
“Part of our job description [in the U.S. Coast Guard] is that we’re fabricators—we stitch up rafts, parachutes, flight suits, life vests. It’s something I can do as part of my job description, but it’s not like the sewing machine is calling my name every day at work, like, ‘Come sew, come sew.’ … I sew just to show the guys that I still can. Rescue swimming attracts very testosterone-driven, type-A personalities, so it doesn’t hurt my cause to go in every once in a while and bust out a sewing project. That way the guys can see, oh, if the chief is doing it, I better do it, too, and they don’t try to dump all the sewing on the one guy in the shop who’s really good at it.”
"Procrastination is very unhealthy. It causes problems for the people who are counting on you to complete things in a timely fashion and it makes your own life more difficult. … It helps to be a little compulsive. Then you feel uncomfortable if something is hanging over you—that’s the opposite of procrastination, a compulsion to complete things and get rid of the albatross hanging over you. … I have that compulsion."
Snow plow driver
“Luckily, snow plowing is rife with fine times to not work. ... For example, you can say ‘Well, Mr./Mrs. So-and-So, we got conflicting weather reports that indicated that the snow might not let up until tomorrow. We would hate to come out there to plow just to have it covered back up with snow and have to do it all over again and charge you twice.’ Or for landscaping, ‘Reports said 60 percent chance of rain. When it's more than 50, my crew don't roll.’ ”
“Sitting on the couch in the salon, I make hair pieces for models in my spare time, because I have a lot of time. … I spend probably longer than I need to massaging the parietal lobe, and the occipital, when I wash hair. That gets the client sleepy. Then they don’t chat too much. … I have a lot of clients who divulge family problems.”
Teacher (third grade)
"I laminate things that don't really need to be laminated."
“If I’m working with a new guy, I try to make him do the hard stuff—like packing up the stuff that’s not already in boxes. I do the easier stuff—the boxes—and take a while bringing them down to the first floor. You have to test the new guys.”
United Nations peacekeeper
“In Bosnia, most of the guys I was working with had no clue about what we were doing in the country. ... I don’t think there is any reason why you should do a good job in a country you are not interested in, and you don’t have any reason to help people that remain pure strangers to you. For most of the civpols [civilian police], Bosnia was a leisure mission. … A mission is what you want it to be. If you want leisure, you get leisure. If you are interested in working, you’ll find some very interesting job to do. … Most of the civpols are in it for the money and for the fun. Just a few of them are really interested in restoring peace and order in the place they are working.”
"Part of my job required me to take care of the reptiles that the zoo uses for shows and stuff like that. The tortoises always peed and pooped everywhere in their cage, so it was always a pain in the ass to clean. Sometimes, if I really didn't feel like cleaning up after them, I would volunteer to hold an animal while someone else cleaned up the cage. So, basically, I got away with not cleaning up the smelliest, dirtiest cages by holding a lizard or turtle."
We asked people from all walks of life to describe their procrastination rituals; the answers are presented below. Mouse over the letters at the right to scroll through the list.
TODAY IN SLATE
Driving in Circles
The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.
Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks
Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies
Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band
Can it be again?
Paul Farmer: Up to 90 Percent of Ebola Patients Should Survive
Is he right?
“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse
Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.
The Right to Run
If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.