Carla Carlisle on procrastination

I reckon there’s at least a 50% chance that you shouldn’t be reading this right now. You should be writing that thank-you letter, the one that will now have to be as long as Middle-march because it’s so overdue. Or you should be cleaning out the chicken house before you’re reported to the RSPCA for allowing domestic fowl to live in slum conditions. And if you don’t organise the receipts stuffed in the Jubilee biscuit tin by Friday, it will be too late to include them with this year’s tax return.

Of course, reading this is as good a way of putting things off as any, and I’m in no position to chide. Before I settled down to produce this divertissement of delay, I polished two silver sugar shakers we never use, filled the bins in the game larder with layers pellets and corn and made a list of things I must do today for peace of mind.

I also watched Julian cutting the hay, went to the mailbox, separated the post into Mine and His, cleaned out the drain outside the kitchen and took Otis to the vet for his annual booster shot-because I’d left it too long, he now has to go back for a second one. Before I finally sat down at my desk, I made a cafetière of coffee. This involves grinding the beans in my burr grinder, boiling the filtered water and then waiting for three minutes before pouring the water onto the coffee because I recently read that the key to making coffee that isn’t bitter is the delay bet-ween boiling and pouring.

Which is relevant because this is about the delay between thinking and doing. A delay that is called procrastination, des-cribed by Robert Benchley as: ‘Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.’ I’ve always believed that procrastination was the single flaw preventing me from having the rich and happy life that has always been just a whisker away.

Oh, the things I might have been, if only I’d filled in the form, written the letter, finished the first draft, met the deadline, paid on time, checked the oil, made the appointment! Instead, I’ve followed Mark Twain’s dictum-never put off until tomorrow what you can put off to the day after tomorrow-a philosophical yoke that would make an ox inert.

Now, it seems that all my guilt, fretfulness, misery and shame have, in fact, been a blessing. Economists, psychologists and philosophers are all taking a new look at procrastination. They’re rejecting the notion that dillydallying is a form of what the Greeks called akrasia-doing something against one’s own better judgment-and seeing it as a valuable means of slowing down. Reflection and slowing down are the new moral ideal.

True, with more time and thought, I think the war in Afghanistan would have been avoided. A little perusal of history would have convinced any general it was unwinnable. Truer still of the war in Iraq. If politicians had even skimmed the ‘Lonely Planet’ guide, they would have realised that it was a country fatally divided between Sunnis and Shi’as.

An inspiring example of the Slow movement is Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest men, who describes his investment strategy as ‘lethargy bordering on sloth’. He hangs onto stocks for the long term. The current Libor scandal started with a snap decision. Bad idea.

Enheartening as this new appraisal is, I still feel guilt at my ineptitude at getting things done. I pay more for train tickets because I don’t book far enough in advance. I’m surrounded by packages too late to mail that were meant for babies who are now at university. All the same, one can only welcome this enlightened message of our times. Unless, of course, your job is to provide weekly distraction for folks who really should be cleaning out the chicken house.

* Summer

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