This I Believe

Joe - Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Entered on December 17, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50

When I flush the toilet, nothing happens. I take off the tank lid to jiggle the chain and discover there’s no water. The intake pipe is open and water flows to the sink taps, just not the toilet. I can’t figure out what’s wrong, so I use a bucket to “flush” the toilet, and put “Phone Plumber” on my To-Do list. All day I think about making the call, but I don’t. Nor do I the next day. Or the next. I tell myself it’s because I’m too busy (even though I know it would only take a few minutes), but I know the real reason.

I am a procrastinator.

In fact, this may be the most fundamental and stable part of my identity. In the past, I had different political views, a different body shape, even hair, but, just like now, it would take me days to get around to changing a burnt-out light bulb. In the future, I could conceivably change my diet, religion, profession, even nationality or marital status, but I will still be a procrastinator. And I believe this inevitable, immutable, irresistible tendency to put things off has more effect on my life than God, the weather, the planets, my desires, or my fears.

I pay significant financial, professional, and social costs for being this way. I get assessed late charges and fines. I have manuscripts that I’ve never submitted for publication. I have half-written letters to friends that I’ve been meaning to finish for years. However, none of this can be helped. I have made repeated attempts to change, and it’s become clear that I can no more decide to stop procrastinating than I can decide to dunk a basketball. More importantly I now suspect that I shouldn’t try.

Procrastination is almost universally seen as negative, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Practically speaking, despite axioms like “never put off until tomorrow what you can do today,” putting things off can be a wise decision. Quick responses to problems can make them worse, and “impulse” buys are often regretted. Procrastination can provide a necessary counter-balance to those other urges that get us in trouble.

Philosophically speaking, the procrastinator is fundamentally an optimist. A person who focuses on life rather than death. We believe that we have time. Rather than being driven by the fear and panic of “live each day as if it’s your last,” we act as if there will be a tomorrow. And more after that. This is not a denial of mortality; it is a healthy protective mechanism akin to not looking down when you’re standing on a cliff’s edge. It may even be the body’s way of helping us to function.

Although I don’t understand the mysterious workings of procrastination, I do believe in its power. A week after the toilet breaks, I use it in the middle of the night. I absent-mindedly try to flush . . . and it does. At some point, even though I have done nothing, the water has returned.