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The fine art of procrastination

It's the Easter holidays and hopefully those parents still in work have booked a little time off. This precious time can of course be spent exploring Easter activity fun with the kids, but it might also be time to get that thing you've been meaning to get done forever, finally done. We're pleased to hand over to human adult, self-confessed sometime idler, and father of one, Paul Mayze, to explain (or excuse) the fine art of procrastination.

I have a friend called Matt.

This is his 40th birthday card:

I don’t know what the card looks like, or what I wrote on it. Because his 40th birthday party was 5 years ago, and despite being there in person, I forgot to give him the card. That’s normal enough right? We all forget stuff from time to time. Except… I’ve had that card on my desk ever since. For five years. Three years ago, I texted him to check that his address hadn’t changed. Two years ago, I even called and told him I was going to send the card. And yet - there it is still. Now, if you don’t know me (a safe assumption) there’s a good chance you will think I’m hopelessly idle, or a serial procrastinator, or suffering from some kind of syndrome. While I won’t rule out the latter, you’ll have to take my word for it that I’m actually quite good at getting things done. Which makes the issue of this card especially baffling to me. Sending it (a five-minute job at most, with maybe another five minutes for finding a suitable ‘OMG I’m five years’ late’ conciliatory gift on Amazon) has been on my to do lists more times than anything else in my life.*

So, why? On the off-chance that even a handful of readers have a similarly risible long-term failure to act (and please, please, reply in the comments if you do - I’d love to know I’m not alone…) I thought I’d put forward some theories as to why you might hang onto a long term ‘open loop’ like this.

1. No more jobs. Forever.

Comedian James Acaster, in his Netflix special Repertoire, describes life as a cycle of jobs (being awake) and ‘no more jobs’ (sleep) until eventually there are ‘no more jobs forever’ (death). Sure, he’s joking and all that, but - what if I’m clinging to this one innocuous, non-critical task as a kind of shield? As if one day the Grim Reaper will turn up, but he won’t be able to take me away because ‘I still have this card I have to post…’

2. Humans Love Chaos.

“We adore chaos because we like to produce order.” M.C. Escher** Humans do like to put things into order. My wife, as well as organising her work and the family, likes to complete jigsaws.*** When she finishes a puzzle, there is the briefest of moments of satisfaction, followed by a slightly awkward pause. And then she rips it up with almost as much pleasure as she had putting it together in the first place. Having everything in order, I guess, can make us slightly restless. Might having an ‘open loop’ - such as an unsent birthday card - be a kind of insurance against this?

3. Meta-procrastination.

Okay. That makes it sounds fancier than it is. All I mean is… putting something off can make you more likely to get other things done. Usually this works with more daunting, or dreary, tasks: If you need to do the washing, you become really focused on clearing your inbox. If you need to file a tax return, the ironing suddenly looks quite enticing. And so on. So if we’re just going to procrastinate anyway, then it’s not such a bad idea to have something safe - like a birthday card - as a channel for that procrastination. Because then you can get on with other stuff. In the last five years I have got a huge amount done - moved house, changed jobs twice, helped my son transition from Year 1 to Year 6, home-schooled through multiple lockdowns, etc etc. - all while that card has sat on my desk. In other words - Matt’s card has kept my ‘inner procrastinator’ neatly distracted while I’ve got five years’ worth of other stuff done. Thanks Matt!

So what happens next? When I started writing, my intention was to complete this, and then ritualistically package and send Matt his card. But now, I’m not so sure. Maybe I need that card more than he does… And besides, if I said I was going to send it right now, who’d even believe me?! For more on procrastination, I hugely recommend the inconclusive but very entertaining TED Talk by Tim Urban, which you can find here: *Closely followed by writing this blog post, which is now six months overdue. In fact, this was originally going to be about putting off writing this post, before I remembered about the card.

** Disappointing rapper, great artist. (A little MC joke for you there.)

*** Everyone knows someone obsessed with jigsaws now, surely? If only I’d invested in Gibsons Games at the start of lockdown.


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