Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Life in procrastination nation


It is 2016 and my newsfeed is clogged with articles on procrastination — not alarming, really, as social media is more or less designed as an instrument of procrastination.

Woman procrastinatesThe trending headlines are: how to overcome procrastination, the surprising neurological origins of procrastination, and how procrastinators are better-slash-worse than non-procrastinators.

Is this a joke? Does reading about procrastination make anyone feel better about the fact they are procrastinating? More than that, does everyone really care so much how they spend every waking moment?

Where does this need for punctuality, performance and productivity arise?

I don't believe it is rooted so much in 'western culture' as it is in capitalism. There is, after all, time for many kinds of dithering in the literature that charts western society (the ruling society, at least.)

Socrates was a notorious ditherer. At the beginning of The Symposium, his friend Agathon finds him 'fresh from the bath and with shoes on his feet, two circumstances most unusual with him'. They walk together to a dinner party, but Agathon arrives alone, because his friend has 'fallen behind' — Socrates is just standing somewhere deep in his own thoughts, and comes into the meal as it's halfway through.

Socrates can barely tie his own sandals — he's a total flake! He'd never make his job network meeting on time. Hamlet, similarly, is entirely premised on the drama of procrastination: perhaps some things, like killing one's paternal uncle who is also the king, might seem better fit for tomorrow.

Unpleasant activities are the ones that incur procrastination, and it is the inherent unpleasantness of these activities which gives them virtue.

Along with 90 per cent of my peers, I procrastinated my way through an undergraduate degree. I'd leave papers til a few days before the due date, and stay up the night before to write them. To this day I often get up at 5am to finish writing something on deadline.

Most writers acknowledge that half of their work is thinking, which happens in notebooks and dream diaries, while lying in the bath, while cooking spanakopita. Perhaps that is pure laziness.

I don't procrastinate these days, probably because I have a loose sense of work, and derive some pleasure from it. Pleasure is a good motivation. I can tell you why I procrastinated so much as a student though: I was not a very good student. I lacked focus and time organisation skills, I was always tired, I worked too much at night and had too little money.

At uni, the worst procrastinators are apparently the ones who drop out before finishing their degrees. Universities discourage this, but I often think: why does everyone have to be at university all the time? If someone dreads writing an assignment that much, perhaps there is something more pleasant they could do with their time.

MacKenzie Wark writes that education (as opposed to knowledge) is 'organised as a prestige market', and through the desire provoked by its perceived scarcity — 'workers are persuaded to see education much as the ruling class would have them see it — as a privilege'. And if you have access to this scarce privilege, you are obliged to work really hard for and within it.

Procrastination only exists in a society that has manipulated everything into work. Work is work, socialising is work (networking), exercise is work (working out), cooking and tending to bodily needs is work (housework).

The outcome of hard work and discipline is status, prestige, affluence, attractiveness. And because these goals are always relative (you cannot be absolutely wealthy or attractive, only less or more so than someone else) they are elevated in our imagination on the condition that they are scarce.

But scarce doesn't mean inaccessible in this climate: all our collective goals are premised on the idea that anyone can achieve them, if only they learn how to overcome procrastination.

Scarcity equals desire. Scarcity equals extremely unlikely to-do lists. Scarcity equals competition.

The good thing, apparently, about modern society is that it has rid itself of oppressive provincial superstitions. I look at my own to-do list, which involves a range of over-the-top, daily goals revolving around housework, exercise, reading, and working, and I wonder if work is magic, too.


Ellena Savage

Ellena Savage is the Editor at The Lifted Brow, commissioning Editor at Spook Magazine, and a graduate student in creative writing. 

Image: Shutterstock

Topic tags: Ellena Savage, procrastination



submit a comment

Existing comments

What if socialising wasn't networking but just being with friends who are of great benefit but it's difficult to define that benefit. What if exercise wasn't working out but walking out to look at 'things'. What if cooking and tending to bodily needs wasn't housework but occasions of enjoyment. I did mean to clean out my laundry cupboard in time for new year but...I think I was reading Edgar Allan Poe instead.

Pam | 21 January 2016  

Ellena, I like your message. It seems to be, "Don't put off procrastination, Do it TODAY!" I intend to.

Alan Hogan | 22 January 2016  

The old story of the procrastinator's New Year resolution comes to this old mind. It seems that she decided to resolve to curb her procrastination habit, but after due thought decided to leave that resolution to next year.

David Sykes | 22 January 2016  

`Acedia` comes to mind...just can`t quite get my act together to write more...

Fiona Winn | 22 January 2016  

Similar Articles

Ordinary heroes shine on suffering

  • Gillian Bouras
  • 29 January 2016

Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer often made his characters ask the eternal questions, chiefly Why do we suffer? I can't profess to have any answers to this, except that it is obvious that 'time and chance happeneth to all'. Two examples of such happenings are the huge numbers of ill-fated refugees fleeing Syria and other trouble spots, and the needless death of young Sarah Paino of Hobart, wife and mother, who was killed when a speeding stolen car crashed into hers.


Our unfinished business with the First Nations

  • Brian McCoy
  • 26 January 2016

Every time I cross Sydney Harbour by train heading to the North Shore I look for the Aboriginal flag that flies from the top of the Jesuits' St Aloysius' College at Milsons Point. It was first raised on 25 January 1988, on the eve of the Australian Bicentenary, to mark the final day, 200 years previously, that Aboriginal people had complete freedom to their lands and customs before the arrival of the First Fleet.