Column: The joy of procrastination
For as long as I can remember, I have been unable to get things done in a timely fashion. It takes me forever to replace broken appliances or pay overdue bills, and I am not much better about answering emails or returning phone calls. The optometrist’s office sits 50 yards from my office; I pass it 10 times a day. But I need a year to make an appointment and another six months before I order new glasses. Maybe I’m just lazy. Maybe the $10 reading glasses from CVS work just fine.
What astonishes me is that I ever get anything done. I am a chronic list-maker, yet except for picking up milk and the dry cleaning, nothing ever seems to get checked off my list. I recently happened upon a notebook I kept in Paris in 1972, when I was 21. It consisted of hundreds of French words and phrases I wrote down to help me master the language. In the back was a list of things I intended to do with my life. These included learning German, Italian, and Spanish, reading Proust every night before bedtime, and going to Oktoberfest in Munich. It is now 46 years later and I haven’t done any of those things.
That doesn’t mean I haven’t done anything in the intervening decades. For example, the list did not include:
1. Fall in love.
2. Watch my daughter graduate from Harvard.
3. Watch my son get sworn in as a deputy attorney general.
4. Be in Philadelphia the night the Eagles won the Super Bowl.
5. Write 10 books.
6. Make my own low-budget movie.
7. Visit Australia, Hawaii, Italy, Morocco, Scotland, and Sweden.
8. Purchase a stately, well-appointed three-bedroom colonial with a majestic view of the Hudson River.
9. Generally have a happy and successful life.
10. Go back to Paris 25 more times.
Procrastination, far from being a flaw or a personality defect, is an attribute — perhaps even a virtue. We don’t get around to doing the things on our list because the important things in life never appear on a list.
Herein we come to the central problem in devising lists. Lists contain the things that we would do in the best of all possible worlds, like learning to speak Japanese or play the hammered dulcimer or dance the tango. Because such lists are inherently aspirational, they are not entirely serious. They are things we would do if we weren’t busy doing the things that matter. The very fact that something is on a list means that we probably don’t really want to do it or don’t honestly believe that it is possible. Who wants to go on a diet? Who wants to stop eating ice cream? Who actually enjoys Pilates?
It’s worth noting that the notebook in which I reminded myself to learn German, Italian, and Spanish did not contain a reminder to learn French. French I was already learning. Forty-five years later I could sit on the boardwalk in Asbury Park at dawn on a Sunday morning, happily reading Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai in the original French. But reading Le Pont de la rivière Kwaï — especially in Asbury Park — never actually appeared on any of my lists.
Lists create the illusion of finality. In theory, when you attack a list, you systematically check things off — get the house painted, get the floors refinished, get that heart transplant. If you keep plugging along in this fashion, you convince yourself, you will eventually get everything cleared off your list. Then you will arrive at what Buddhists call satori — perfect peace.
But life is never that simple.
Here’s why: Each item on a list generates another list. Last year I suffered from severe bronchitis. It went on for months. My children insisted that I visit a pulmonologist. After an immense amount of delaying, I finally set up a visit. The doctor, a very thorough man, told me that there was nothing wrong with my lungs, but just to be on the safe side he would like me to get an X-ray. And a blood test. And a breathing test. This meant three additional visits to the medical center, plus tons of paperwork. All to get one measly thing crossed off a list.
But that wasn’t the end of it. The doctor said that even though my lungs sounded fine, my sinuses were a mess. So now I would have to arrange a visit with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. The earliest appointment was six weeks hence. In the intervening time I was supposed to fly to London and then to Barcelona for a work assignment. But the only travel dates available would have necessitated rescheduling the ENT appointment, which I did not want to do because I was back to suffering from a sore throat, doubtless related to my sinus issues. Had I never visited the pulmonologist, or had I at least delayed the visit a few more months, I would have spent late June in Barcelona and London. In other words, because I so desperately wanted to check something off my list, I had to make four other medical appointments and cancel my flight to Europe.
Here’s another example: Appearing on my list of things to do was visiting the charming Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, to see a show featuring the great Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. Stepping out of the car, I dropped my phone, smashing the LCD screen. And when I arrived at the front door of the museum, it was closed.
A few days later I went to see the screen repair guy. He said it would take five days to order a new screen. But I hated that phone so much that I decided to just get a new one. This required a lot of research. When I got to the Verizon store, they said they could not transfer the data from my old phone to the new one. They said I would have to use an app. But I couldn’t download the app onto my old phone because the screen was busted. I finally bought a moderately priced phone and successfully transferred my photos and messages, but I had to manually re-enter all my contact information. The next day my wife’s phone broke and all her contact info, photos, and messages were lost. She went out and bought the same phone as I. Then I had to spend the next week teaching her how to use it. Then my new phone stopped working. So it was back to the store to get a replacement, plus more tedious hours of data entry. And now my wife sits on the couch like a highly judgmental cormorant waiting for her bargain-basement phone to break so that she can blame me for not buying an iPhone like any normal person. All this because I stopped off to see an art exhibit by a painter I’m not all that crazy about in a museum that wasn’t even open in a town I don’t even like. All because I was trying to check something off my list.
Even if the museum had been open, I couldn’t have enjoyed the exhibition because the progressive lens glasses that it took me six months to order were the wrong strength and needed to go back to the shop. Yet another case of checking something off a list only to see it return from the dead like an ill-tempered zombie with poor depth perception.
What I have learned from these experiences is that procrastination is usually a good thing, a well-thought-out and in many ways brilliant defense mechanism. We procrastinate because we secretly suspect that addressing the items on our tyrannical to-do list will lead to financial ruin, heartbreak, immense disappointment, or invasive medical procedures. At best, it will be a waste of time. If you have been trying to learn to read music since you were 12 and have not yet succeeded, you were probably never meant to read music. What’s more, learning to read music would not necessarily make you happy. I am a reasonably good guitarist who derives a reasonable amount of pleasure from playing reasonably interesting music once a month with my reasonably gifted high school bandmates. If I could read music, I would still be a moderately talented guitarist. Learning to read music wouldn’t change a thing. The reason I never did it is not simply that I was too busy raising my kids, having my career, enjoying my life. It was that I knew at a very early age how far I was ever going to get as a musician. If I had raised my children as badly as I play lead guitar, they would both be doing time.
Lists are the graveyard of dreams. But dreams often die because they deserve to die. If you’ve run your life properly, you shouldn’t need to see the Great Pyramids or the Taj Mahal to feel fulfilled. That’s why bucket lists are such a cruel joke. Almost everything that appears on a bucket list is something that can be easily accomplished: jump out of an airplane, swim with sharks, go on a safari. Insanely expensive, but otherwise no big deal. Not like staying married for 41 years or making a living as a freelance satirist. I used to think that climbing Mount Everest was an astonishing accomplishment until I found out how many dentists had done it. It was a dentist who told me. Bucket lists are linear, finite, interchangeable, and obvious. You can jump on a plane and see Mount Fuji, the Sistine Chapel, and the aurora borealis by the end of the week. Easy-peasy. But you cannot jump on a plane and fix the Social Security system, eliminate economic inequality in America, cure cancer, write a thoughtful, well-received string quartet, or raise a teenage boy. Raising a teenage boy never appears on anyone’s bucket list.
Nobody should ever say, “Here are the 10 things I absolutely must do before I die.” The only thing you need to do before you die is see your kids one more time.
One day I was talking to my brother-in-law about death, and he asked what was on my bucket list. I said I didn’t have one. He said, “Well, what would you put on your bucket list if you had one?” I said, “I’d really like to spend a year in Paris.” And he said, “You already did spend a year in Paris.” To which I replied, “That’s why I don’t have a bucket list.”
• Joe Queenan is a freelance writer based in Tarrytown, New York. Read more stories from The Rotarian.