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An Ode to Procrastination

The Atlantic logo The Atlantic 6/18/2021 James Parker
Tim Lahan © Provided by The Atlantic Tim Lahan

This article was published online on June 18, 2021.

It’s a negative state. There’s no getting around that.

When I’m procrastinating, stalling, temporizing, I am defined at the metabolic level by the thing that I am not doing. The commitment I’m resisting. My whole being is somehow involved in this nonproject: There’s a niggling in the brain, a whining in the body, some kind of invisible celestial countdown going on somewhere.

And it’s an artificial state. A kind of lie. Outwardly, I’m at ease: I’m pottering about, I’m picking up books and putting them down again, I’m chatting gaily on the phone, I’m eating tortilla chips. But inwardly, inwardly, I’m in violent Luciferian rebellion against the angels of adulthood, of responsibility, of unfreedom. I’m clenched, I’m sulfurous. I brood, with fiery pinions. I won’t go to the bloody bank. I won’t go to the post office. I might not shave. Expecting something from me? Feedback? A prompt reply? A timely handling of something or other? Good luck.

© Tim Lahan

That’s Phase One: clinically interesting, but no fun. Sloth, like every sin worth the name, disquiets me and divides me from myself.

The horizon brightens, however, in Phase Two. In Phase Two, you get busy. Mountains of energy are suddenly available to you. Straining to avoid one particular thing, dawdling mightily, you can do five others. You can clean the house. You can exercise. You can work on a book. The wrong book, but still—a book. If you organize yourself skillfully, you can be productive and even sort of professional while not doing what you’re supposed to be doing. My friend Josh calls this “the virtuous circle of procrastination.”

In Phase Three, it ends. It has to. Strangely built into the procrastinatory moment is the consciousness that eventually, finally, you are going to do this thing. You may have dallied with magical thinking (perhaps they’ll forget about it … perhaps somebody else will do it), but you know there’s no way out. So bring on the Red Bull, bring on the thrash metal, the freak-out and the perspiration, whatever it takes.

And now it’s over. You’ve emerged. You have been a weird little god, playing with Time. You’ve been Max von Sydow, playing chess with Death. And while you haven’t won, exactly, you haven’t lost, either. You’ve been flirting with finality. You’ve been fiddling with foreclosure. You’ve been testing yourself against the mystery of your own cessation. Ridiculous, and yet—heroic. You have stood athwart the currents of life and felt them rush against you. And you’ll do it again, even as they carry you to the last great deadline of all.

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