I own a book called Wait: The Useful Art of Procrastination. It sits at the bottom of my bedside-table-pile-of-books (all the best people have one). I think I bought it in about 2013. Haven’t even cracked the spine. That should be enough to illustrate the extent of my bad habit, I think.
Procrastination is without a doubt my worst vice. It’s gotten me into a variety of scrapes over the years, but I have managed to squeak through to most deadlines, or at least come up with creative (and hopefully believable) excuses at the last minute.
I used to think that habitually putting things off was just my nature. I justified my procrastination by telling myself that I work well when I have a deadline looming, or that I get my best inspiration from panic. I’m not the kind of person who feels stressed when an unpleasant task is unfinished; I have an almost superhuman ability to compartmentalize my most dreaded To Do List items so that I barely even think about them. Yes, I do feel better once a nagging chore is finished– but somehow that never convinces me to actually do the thing.
After many years of pondering my procrastination, I’ve realised that it comes down to a few factors. Elizabeth Gilbert is right in claiming that “all procrastination is fear.” For me, it’s probably about fear that I won’t do something right or fear that I won’t do it to my own (admittedly high) arbitrary standard. My procrastination also comes from a lack of accountability or consequence: I will be much more likely to avoid doing something if I know that nothing that bad is going to happen– or no one will really notice– if I don’t get around to doing it.
All procrastination is fear.
– Elizabeth Gilbert
Two years ago, the Indian Embassy stepped in to help me with my propensity for postponing important tasks. I was heading to Rome to meet M.’s parents for the first time. I got a great deal on one of the first flights Air India was offering from Delhi to Rome. This flight, compellingly, gave me the chance to have a 20-hour layover in Delhi between my flights from Melbourne to Rome. It was perfect– I would be on my own in the city, but I could still have a whirlwind tour of India’s capital before jetting off to Europe.
When I purchased my ticket, the travel website warned that I would need to obtain a visa if I wanted to leave the airport, even for less than a full day. Fine, I thought, and I put “get Indian visa” on my To Do list.
And there is stayed. Right at the top of every post-it, for weeks. I knew I would need to fill in some paperwork and probably provide a passport photo, but that wouldn’t take too long, surely.
Finally, I got around to the visa paperwork, just under a month before I was scheduled to leave. It was a bit more complicated than I had been expecting (good thing I know the full names of all my grandparents off by heart…) and it wasn’t at all digital, but I got it done. I spent a lunch break waiting in line at the post office and got it sent to the Indian Consulate in Melbourne by express post. All good, right? Yeah, no.
Two days later, the envelope was in my mailbox. Insufficient post. Not my fault, of course– I had thought that the lady at the post office seemed distracted, but hadn’t double-checked anything. Ok, back on the To Do List.
You guessed it. I avoided it for another two weeks. By then, even I was feeling some residual panic at the thought that this visa request had still not been sent. I decided to call the Indian Consulate to find a way to expedite the process.
The woman I spoke to was terse and unsympathetic. There was no way to make the system go any faster, she told me; she advised that I’d be better off not sending anything because they would never have time to process it before I left. No, there wasn’t any way I could pay extra to speed things along. No, I was too late, she could not help me.
I hung up the phone, disappointed, but oddly exhilarated. Of course they couldn’t help me– I’d left everything far too late, and it certainly wasn’t their responsibility to pick up my mess.
Far too often, though, people do pick up our mess for us. We can pay extra to have the system sped up. People do us favours, or help us out because we seem so upset. Ultimately, though, it was my poor choices that led me to that point in the visa process. I felt like I’d spent years waiting to really feel the terrible consequences of my procrastination, and this was the first time it had actually ever happened.
So I went to Delhi and stayed in the airport for 20 hours (it actually wasn’t so bad, but that’s a post for another day). I haven’t seen India properly, but I’m grateful that they stood firm on their visa requirements. I can’t say that I’ve completely stopped procrastinating, but I certainly remember the Indian Consulate anytime I have travel paperwork to fill out!