The Art of Procrastination

Judy Tenuta once said, “My parents told me I’d never amount to anything because I procrastinated too much. I told them, ‘Just you wait.’”

Procrastination is a skill that takes decades to properly master. A childish amateur might miss a deadline and attempt the old cliché, “I tried to do it, but the dog ate my homework.” But it takes a really skilled writer to bring procrastination up to the level of a fine art form. As Roy Peter Clark says in his book, Writing Tools, “Never write today what you can put off until tomorrow.” With that mantra, I’m surprised he ever finished his book. Harold Ross of The New Yorker said, “Like many people, I started blogging out of an urgent need to procrastinate.”

The word procrastination is derived from the Latin cras—meaning “Tomorrow.” This tomorrow does not have the same hopeful, uplifting message Little Orphan Annie belts out with her show-stopping song. Many famous writers suffer from procrastination and have taken the word tomorrow to literally mean tomorrow. Mañana. The day after today. Or maybe the next.

Douglas Adams of Hitchhiker’s Guide fame says, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” On missing a deadline, Dorothy Parker remarked, “Somebody was using the pencil.” Robert Benchley said, “Anyone can do any amount of work providing it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” The New Yorker writer Susan Orlean not only confessed to being a procrastinator, at the recent Long Beach Literary Women Conference, she gave a few tips on how to do it at home. Her first tip was to organize your bookshelves by color, then to move on to your clothes closet. Her theory being, “I’m organizing, I’m accomplishing, so how can I be a procrastinator?”

I myself have just put off working on my book by reading all the quotes about procrastination on the Internet. Here’s one of my favorites:

“Procrastination is my sin. It brings me naught but sorrow.

I know that I should stop it. In fact, I will—tomorrow!”

There’s that word again—tomorrow—which brings us back to that Broadway show. Let’s take my stage analogy a bit further and rename procrastination; let’s call it rehearsal. Now doesn’t that sound better? The rehearsal is the preparation period when you learn the story, memorize your lines, and get into the mind of your character. You have to know these things before you can perform and also before you can write. We could all stop putting off until tomorrow if we started thinking of writing as a performance. Your audience has bought tickets and they have high expectations, so when the curtain rises, you darn well better be ready.

Procrastination may be the perfect way to add drama to your life, but only accomplishment adds the accolades. In the words of Jedi Master Yoda, “Do or do not do. There is no try.”