“We are always complaining that our days are few, and acting as though there would be no end of them.” (Seneca)
Years ago, watching some movie, a scene occurred which both amused and haunted me. A man tells his analyst, “I’ve always wanted to do such-and-such while I’m alive,” and the analyst says, “Well, yes, that would be the time to do it.”
It’s funny because we all recognize it. It’s haunting because, well, we all recognize it. Procrastination.
That thief of time, as poet and philosopher Edward Young famously noted.
Our favorite form of self-sabotage (author Alyce P. Cornyn-Selby).
Our default mode (Me).
Understandably, we procrastinate over tasks with a high yuck factor or an Einsteinian degree of difficulty, but why do we so often put off doing the things we really want to do, the stuff that makes us happy, the stuff we love, that which puts the J in joy?
Let Me Count the Ways
When my son was in high school, I gave him a tee shirt one Christmas that said:
We all had a good laugh about it, but in the years since, I’ve gotten to wondering what are the reasons I procrastinate? Why do I so often think about pulling out my guitar, limbering up the fingers on a few tunes—and then do nothing? What prevents me from taking up découpage again—an art I both love and have the tools and materials for? Why do I vow to read the user’s manual for my Nikon “this week” so I can discover all the creative, fun stuff my camera can do—and then let “this week” become a month, a year, two years?
Why do I put off my own happiness?
Okay, I’ll have a go at filling in the Top 10 reasons I procrastinate—well, nine of them anyway. You can’t totally makeover a procrastinator at one go.
Maybe you’ll recognize a few.
1. I get wrapped up in the humdrum of the daily to-dos. Laundry. Groceries. Meal prep and clean-up. Weeding the garden/raking the leaves. Appointments. Workouts. Tidying the worst of the dustballs and flotsam that threaten to bury us alive.
Ed and I share most of this load, but it’s still a load. The monotony of the daily-to-dos—lather, rinse, repeat—leaves me both uninspired and desperate for something that is not emptying the dishwasher. I often think it would be wonderfully rejuvenating to drive out to the Quabbin Reservoir with Ed and aimlessly wile away an afternoon in that amazing wide-open space—living in civilization, you really do forget how BIG the sky is—but that would mean getting off my rusty dusty, digging out my hiking boots, driving an hour there and another hour back, possibly having to stop for gas… I get tired just thinking about it.
Hiking? Maybe once I’ve had a good nap.
2. With only a scant 24 hours in the day—can someone please do something about that?—I feel like a commitment to one more activity will be the blowtorch that ends up vaporizing me. As mentioned up top, I’ve been thinking for months, okay years now, that I should get back to my guitar. I love my guitar—an exquisite old Martin. I love playing guitar. I used to write songs. I love music—I know the lyrics to virtually every song written since 1961, for godsakes. So why don’t I pick up the guitar and work the calluses back into my rusty fingers? Why don’t I visit the music store downtown and see who’s giving fingerpicking lessons. I’ve always wanted to improve my technique. But lessons involve a commitment to practicing. Regularly. Should I give up reading (impossible!), showering (inadvisable)?
3. Following on the time crunch of Reason #2 is the need for expedience wherever I can find it. I love to cook, I really do. We have enough spices to stock a small specialty store, and a collection of cookbooks that span our travels and culinary likes: Greek, Italian, Sicilian. Curries, minestrone, tajine stews. I could lose myself in a Moroccan veggie tajine… if only it didn’t take so long. All that slicing and dicing. All that simmering and sautéing and roasting.
I keep thinking, “Next week, I’ll clear some afternoon hours, crank up Phil Spector on the kitchen CD player and make something fabulous.” But every week, that “some afternoon” gets pushed into the next week by an avalanche of must-do stuff where it’s a squeeze to manage a bathroom break, until I’m so overwhelmed by guilt (guilt for not doing something I like doing—teleport me to the nearest shrink couch, please!) that at long last I haul out Taste of America and prepare Shrimp-stuffed Eggplant, a dish that has 11 steps and involves chopping up several thousand vegetables. With each whack of the knife, I remind myself This is what life’s about, making time for the things you love, this is what life’s about, making time for the things you love, this is what…
4. Speaking of food, I put off doing what I love because I’m a prisoner of the old dictum You must eat all your veggies before you get dessert. The “veggies” aren’t really the issue here—I could do without housecleaning (as an inspection of the premises any day will prove), but I’m focused and disciplined in my writing and I like working out at the gym. No, the problem is not the vegetables of life. The problem is I too rarely get to dessert. And my favorite “dessert” is to go places and do things with Ed.
We do spend large quantities of time together, doing the daily stuff of life, but the dessert thing is where I say, “Screw it, I’m not going to query any agents today or work on revisions or research markets for my latest short story. We’ll just jump in the car and drive north to Vermont or east to Boston. Spend the day combing bookstores. Visit the MFA. Relax and not count the hours.” That’s the crème brûlée I too often put off. Until X gets done, or Y is over. As we all know, X and Y never really disappear. They just mutate into new life-sucking forms from one day to the next. Life is short. Eat dessert first. And savor the crème brûlée. That’s where the memories are.
5. Some aspect of the thing I want to do feels uncertain, and this haziness quickly assumes the proportions of Mount Everest in my head. A couple of years ago, I got all fired up to sift through and recycle, donate, or—if all else failed—trash what we no longer needed in the attic, which I estimated to be about 90% of the junk up there. Okay, okay, I hear you: She dreams of cleaning her attic? Man, she needs to get out more. Yes, I do need to get out more, but stay with me here a moment. I like space. Uncluttered space. My experience has been that when the stuff we like or need is buried beneath an avalanche of the broken, the outdated, and the just plain ugly (What was I thinking when I acquired that?), we don’t get to it/use it/enjoy it. Add to that my tendency to hang on to a pair of shoes for 30 years (they’re perfectly good and still look great), and you get why clearing the attic might be something I really want to do.
Anyway, I was steaming along full speed ahead. Filling up boxes of books to donate to Reader to Reader. Loading cartons of clothing, CDs, kitchenware duplicates, and kids’ board games for the Salvy Army. Wrangling cords, computer monitors, and other outdated digital hoo-ha to drop off at Staples. When. Suddenly. I was confronted by five LARGE plastic tubs of American Girl dolls, their clothes, their accessories, their little bio books, their stilts and basketball hoops. I mean, these dolls come with a complete world of their own. They also cost, collectively, about a jillion dollars, so I was hoping to get a few bucks return on my initial investment. Something to sustain me in those twilight years ahead.
BUT there was just one teensy snag: I had never sold anything on e-Bay and hadn’t the foggiest how best to proceed. So I closed the tub lids and went downstairs and wrote a novel.
Last summer, I thought I will tackle this. I can do this. I’m the girl who jumped into her VW with all her worldly possessions and drove cross-country to live in a city she’d never seen. How hard can e-Bay be?
I got as far as reading the “How to get Started” section and making a list of all the things I needed to do: Clean up the five dolls, do my best to fix their hair (my daughter was a hair stylist of the 25th century), separate out which outfits, shoes, accessories go with each doll, steam all the badly wrinkled clothing, take a sample doll-and-clothes package to the post office for shipping estimates, make sure my PayPal account is up to date, check comparable AG doll offers online, decide on prices, then write the copy and post on e-Bay.
I stared at this mindboggling list for several weeks and then resumed researching and querying agents for the novel.
6. Some piece, some part is missing without which I cannot do the thing I want to do, and that means getting in the car, driving to whatever store that has the missing piece/part, then driving back home to install it—if it’s possible to install, if I have the necessary tools.
Sometimes this is simple, if the part is camera batteries which I can buy from Stop & Shop—an easy five-minute walk from my house—but sometimes it’s trickier if the needed thing resides in a store two towns over—the town past the town on the other side of the bridge that spans the Connecticut River, on the road that always crawls and comes to a dead stop from 2 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. On a Friday, you could read all of War and Peace on that journey.
When that occurs, it’s a matter of strategic planning. Can I carve out time to stop and get Part X on the way home from my next hair appointment (every five weeks)? Can I manage to track down the needed thing after my eye appointment (once every two years)? These are the times I can definitely rely on being in the town two towns over. I try to make those trips count.
At the moment, I have a pile of artwork—prints from galleries in London, Paris, Florence—waiting to be hung, standing at the ready to lend elegance to my humble abode. The problem: The shop where I get my frames (big selection, good prices) is across that damn bridge, on the outskirts of the town two towns over. Last week, I finally managed to get a print from the Tate Britain matted, framed, and hung—I celebrated with a snifter of cognac—but the queue of prints is alarmingly long. Plus, we don’t really have wall space for all of them. Ed has suggested a rotating gallery approach. That sounds good. At least, possible. I’ll get to it soon. Really.
7. Technical glitches that mess with my head (which is most technical glitches). Last Christmas, I took a group photo of our blended family. Got out the Nikon (too many folks for any kind of selfie that didn’t have that fishbowl look). Set it up. Got out the tripod. Set it up. Screwed the camera onto the tripod. Set the automatic timer. Took a series of photos. “I’ll send you all a copy,” I promised everyone. That was a year ago.
Buoyed up by working on this post, I got out the Nikon. Predictably “batteries exhausted” flashed on the viewfinder. Not a problem! I located the recharger, plugged those babies in and reloaded. Not a problem! The photo I wanted to upload to my computer came right up. Feeling capable, powerful, CAN DO, I plugged in the camera. Nothing happened. Nothing uploaded. Undaunted, I googled the situation—maybe after such a long hiatus, I’d forgotten a simple step. I followed the online instructions. Nothing. Beginning to feel a tad daunted, I put everything away and promised myself I would dig out the instruction booklet that came with the camera. Soon. Because I want to print good copies to give everyone this Christmas. And I will. I hope.
8. What I want to do requires making arrangements with others via something I call “Calendar Roulette.” Say, I want to meet up with a friend or friends for coffee, drinks, a day at the races, a night at the opera (a nod to all you Queen fans out there). We all toss the dates and times we are free into the ring, hoping the stars will align in some joyous constellation. But it gets complicated. A is leaving next week for a month of hiking in the Alps, B can’t make it this week but has an open day three Tuesdays from now, and C is only available when 1) her mother-in-law arrives; 2) the kids are at camp; 3) any month that has a Q in it.
I have a dear friend of many years standing—from the long ago days when our kids were in elementary school together. I really enjoy talking to Elaine, but other than random, brief sightings of each other, we hadn’t sat down together for, well, way too long. Until last January, when swearing undying determination, we bargained times like poker players at a high stakes table and—at last!—located a two-hour slot on a Wednesday for lunch. It was great to see her, talk to her, laugh over old times and catch up on what’s new. But I don’t imagine we’ll manage it again until sometime in 2026 when the moon is full and Sagittarius is in the 7th house.
9. It will take forever to do the thing I want to do. This brings us back to Reason #2 and my pathetic inability to PICK UP MY GUITAR AND JUST PLAY IT, as the Nike ad says.
Actually, I did pick up my guitar one afternoon about six months ago. Trotted out a few of the old standard tunes. And boy did I suck. My fingers throbbed, making the chords sloppy and my picking, fumbly. In short, I, who have played guitar for, well, let’s just say decades, and two or three times in actual public places with an actual audience—though I admit, they certainly did not come to see me—I was like some hamfisted cartoon character with unarticulated pancake circles for hands.
The crazy thing is that I went through all this at age 12, when I saved up my babysitting money (at 50 cents an hour, it took a while) and bought my first guitar. Then, like now, I fumbled through chords, stumbled through simple songs, and toughened up my tender digits. But it was exciting. I was (slowly) improving! Where is that sense of joyous challenge now?
More to the point, so what if it takes forever? The most challenging session with a guitar is still way better than doing my ten millionth load of laundry.
10. You tell me. What keeps you from doing the things you most enjoy in life? From spending more quality time with the people you love? From developing a new skill? Reviving an old one?
As Ben Franklin, that wise and witty Founding Father, observed, “You may delay, but time will not, and lost time is never found again.”
“How soon ‘not now’ becomes ‘never’,” Martin Luther cautioned.
“A year from now you may wish you had started today,” author/artist Karen Lamb reminds us.
So this year, let’s do it. All those things we dream about. Let’s make a pact to:
Play hooky more often with the people we love.
Follow the pursuits that engage us.
Try something new that intrigues us.
As James Michener joyfully noted: “Don’t put off for tomorrow what you can do today because if you enjoy it today, you can do it again tomorrow.”
Carpe diem. Let’s eat dessert.