I distinctly remember one of the first times that I ever procrastinated. I must have been in about seventh or eighth grade, and I was studying for a science test on a Saturday when all of a sudden it occurred to me that I didn’t actually have to finish studying right away, nor did I want to. So I closed the book and looked out at the trees outside of my window, I read a few pages of the novel that I’d put down earlier that morning, and I daydreamed. After a while I went back to my science, but that hour or so of total idleness felt wonderfully liberating.
My pleasant relationship with procrastination was short-lived. As I got older, I began to understand enough about procrastination to know that it was most definitely a nasty habit to be avoided. After all, in current conversation the word “procrastination” is almost never followed by anything positive. Instead, it is always sandwiched between a string of regrets and nerves: “I wish I hadn’t procrastinated,” “I have to stay up all night because I’ve been procrastinating on this paper,” etc. Then there are the countless articles and self-help guides that begin with lines like, “Cure your procrastination problem now!” We’ve all been trained to see procrastination as a negative habit, and for good reason: putting off what we need to do is usually more stressful than relaxing. The work still needs to get done, and procrastinators end up frazzled and sleep-deprived as they try to make up for lost time.
But in a recent piece in the New York Times’ Sunday Review, Anna Della Subin challenges this notion by verbalizing a question that most of us have been too afraid to even think about: what’s so bad about procrastination? Subin posits that maybe procrastination should simply be treated as a normal part of human life and viewed with acceptance instead of stress and guilt. Procrastination might even have some positive effects. “Why not view procrastination not as a defect, an illness or a sin, but as an act of resistance against the strictures of time and productivity imposed by higher powers?” she asks.
At first, I found the possible value of procrastination a bit difficult to endorse. Sure, procrastination might be a normal human problem, and it makes sense that we should not be treating it with such intense disdain. But could procrastination really be a good thing?
I’m still not sure if the act of procrastination can ever really be positive, but Subin’s article did lead me to realize that the way that we think about procrastination says something frightening about our priorities. Disapproval of procrastination implies that if we’re not active or productive at every given moment, we are in some way slacking off or committing a wrongdoing. But it seems that the incredibly high value that we place on constant productivity can actually be more dangerous than the prospect of procrastination. As Subin points out, as technology quickly continues its rise to domination of our lives, we’re met with less and less opportunities to step away from the hustle and bustle of productivity. “Being in bed is now no excuse for dawdling, and no escape from the guilt that accompanies it,” she says of life with technology. In a world where it is becoming nearly impossible for us to shut off all of our connections to our work for even a moment, it seems that we are more at risk of too little procrastination than too much.
This problem seems all the more relevant to college students. A middle school science test is manageable, but as the work and responsibilities pile up and we begin to find ourselves up until 2:00 a.m. each night trying to get it all done, it can get to the point where if we don’t force ourselves to take a break from productivity, we might never find a moment to just step away and breathe.
And when we do force ourselves to take some time away from it all, this decision shouldn’t be accompanied by guilt. Is there anything truly wrong about wanting to just be for a while, to spend a few hours not doing or accomplishing anything? Most of us do take time to relax every now and then, but it seems that the busier life gets, the more we come to consider those moments a luxury, a rarity, an indulgence that will immediately be followed by what we’re really supposed to be doing, something, anything, productive. This instinct of productivity is a noble one, of course. We want to make a difference in the world, to leave our mark, to make things happen. But when did this goal come to be associated with constant action? When did we decide that pausing from our rush of productivity was a sign of laziness, instead of an opportunity to reflect on why we’re doing what we’re doing? In the rushed obsession with getting things done, we can lose sight of ourselves, and sometimes the only way to find our way back is to put it all away for a while. Then, when we do return to our usual pattern of constant activity, we do so feeling refreshed and able to get it done all the more effectively.
Of course, how we spend our relaxation time matters. I’m not advocating a lifetime of Netflix, however compelling that might seem at times. But taking a minute to look at that beautiful tree with the red leaves as you’re running around campus or just sitting around with friends and doing nothing—whatever it is that allows you to breathe—should not have to be negatively classified as laziness. Idleness is just as critical as productivity when it comes to our ability to be at our best and live meaningfully, and it deserves to occupy the same mandatory space on our never-ending to-do lists.
Fattal is a member of the class of 2017.