I have been staring at a half-dollar-sized hole in a screen in one of our side-porch windows. This hole has been there since at least last April, when I first resolved to mend it. I still intend to get to the repair one of these days. I think I can have it done by Thanksgiving.
But I had other things to do today, like reading James Surowiecki’s essay on procrastination in the New Yorker. Surowiecki’s piece is a review of The Thief of Time, a collection of academic essays on procrastination. It turns out that all the while I’ve been trying to ignore my torn window screen, I’ve been doing more than just slacking. I’ve been, Surowiecki writes, “engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time.”
Suddenly I don’t feel so bad about the window screen.
Surowiecki cites some famous procrastinators, including Civil War general George McLellan, of whom one colleague said, “There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.” And he mentions some notable solutions to the problem of procrastination. Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.
He also quotes academics like the social scientist Jon Elster, who explains what he calls “the planning fallacy,” which refers to people underestimating the time “it will take them to complete a given task, partly because they fail to take account of how long it has taken them to complete similar projects in the past and partly because they rely on smooth scenarios in which accidents or unforeseen problems never occur.”
That’s a pretty fair description of me trying to paint my deck.
I especially like the existential take of philosopher Mark Kingwell: “Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.” Think he does screen repairs?