The piece on procrastination I’ve always meant to write

I’ve always been a procrastinator. I’ve been meaning to write about this problem for a while, but never quite got around to it. And then, out of the blue, Daily Life suggested it – presumably after several years’ experience with my work habits.

And yes, it’s true – my approach to any task is to work out how late before the deadline I have to start, and then start considerably later.

At uni, I got to the point where my standard approach to any essay was to start the night before – even the 6000-word ones. As the years passed, I began them later and later, until I wasn’t starting until dawn on the due date.

From the outset, let me be clear – this is a really bad idea.

My honours thesis was a particularly painful exercise. Given a year to write 15,000 words, I somehow found myself writing the final 10,000 the weekend before it was due at 5pm on Monday night. I narrowly avoided disaster, and got it in – albeit a few hours late, meaning that I missed the slap-up dinner that the department had thrown students to celebrate their thesis submissions.

My procrastination can take any form. Friends, Friends, family, Modern Family, reading, playing guitar, planning out the inevitably terrible concept hip hop album I’ve been meaning to record since I was 16 – anything. My favourite diversion in recent weeks has been the New York Times crossword, a distraction that helpfully resets every single day.

But I think the most reliable means of procrastinating is Wikipedia, which is a distraction in a useful research tool’s clothing. You consult it entirely legitimately about the subject matter, but then start clicking links, and before you know it you’re satisfying the curiosity you never knew you had about what John Stamos was up to between Full House andFuller House.

The most satisfying thing about being a procrastinator is that you can imagine how well you hypothetically would have done if you hadn’t left a task until the last minute.

My thesis didn’t set the academic world on fire, but people were at least surprised that I’d managed to get the thing done in such a short time. Which I now realise is somewhat like giving an uncoordinated child an award simply for turning up to sport. (I have one of those somewhere, too.)

But as a former flatmate of mine observed when we were both meant to be studying for exams but instead were playing elaborate computer games (Civilisation on his part, someStar Wars thing on mine), assuming you’d have done better with more time is a false assumption if it’s something you’ve never, ever managed to do. It’s as empty a boast as saying you can bench press a lot for someone who never trains. Yeah, sure, great – but so what? In the end you’re still not lifting very much. And of course the appropriate response isn’t to be impressed, but ask why on earth you won’t train more consistently.

There have been times when being a last-minute specialist has been hugely useful, like a couple of years ago when I was asked to host a two-hour radio programme with 20 minutes’ notice. (The first segment was, ‘When have you ever been asked to do anything at incredibly short notice?’)

But on the whole, it’s something I’d gladly change about myself. I don’t want to be maniacally planned and methodical, but if I could somehow wind my sense of the latest point at which I could feasibly start a task back by a few weeks, I’d save myself an enormous amount of stress, and sleep.

So, given my lifelong involuntary membership to the Procrastinators’ Club that nobody ever quite got their act sufficiently together to set up, I was astonished to read an article in the New York Times by somebody who taught himself to procrastinate.

I know I’m not the only one out there – otherwise the market for that esteemed publication’s fine crosswords would plummet – but I couldn’t quite believe that somebody organised would choose to join us.

But, although I can barely imagine it, it turns out that there is such a thing as a ‘precrastinator’. The author, Adam Grant, is one.

Just as I put myself through anguish throughout my six-year uni course by starting essays as late as possible, he says that precrastinators’ lives become unbearable as soon as there’s an incomplete task on the horizon. Grant is the opposite of me, a self-control shaman who submitted his dissertation two years early.

Two. Years. Early.

To me, that feels roughly as achievable as getting selected in the Olympic hurdling team – for the Rio Olympics.

But avoiding incompletion angst isn’t the only reason why Adam Grant wanted to become a procrastinator.

He cites studies that say procrastinators achieve more creative outcomes. The architect Frank Lloyd Wright, according to Grant, produced his greatest design only when his client drove over and forced him to sit down and draw. It’s not just that procrastinators do surprisingly good work for the minimal time that they’ve put in, it’s that they often do their best work ever.

I have to say that this accords with my own experience. When a deadline looms, my brain somehow switches into hyperdrive and ideas somehow reveal themselves through sheer urgency, perhaps due to all that sloshing adrenaline.

In fact, I experimented with this article by writing it a day before it was due. It was very dull until I edited it close to the deadline – I’m not going to admit how much. If you think it’s still dull, let’s say I left it that way deliberately.

So there’s a benefit to putting off until tomorrow what you can achieve today. Not only will you probably nail it in the end, but you’ll get to spend some precious hours filling crosswords, too.

But please don’t start those last-minute essays at dawn on the day they’re due. Not only is it unnecessarily agonising, but the more people who can do it, the less proud I’ll feel of my extremely trivial academic achievements.

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