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Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me

March 4, 2018

While putting off writing the talk I’m supposed to give on March 15, I read Andrew Santella’s book Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me. This is a book I recommend for the pleasure of the observations and connections, not because you’ll find any specific remedies for your procrastination habits. I received an advance copy from the publisher, Dey Street Books, because I’m kind of acquainted with the author through my friendship with his wife (although I’ve never met him in person). Now that I’ve read this charming little book, I wish I was better acquainted with him; he sounds like a fun person to have a drink with in New Orleans or London while avoiding whatever pressing business might have originally taken us there.

The first chapter is about the most common reason for procrastination that I know of– perfectionism. Santella relates the story of Darwin’s protracted study of barnacles during the twenty years following his groundbreaking work on natural selection “because Darwin, having made one of the great leaps of intellectual history, did something strange. He dropped the matter.” And as we all know, “there was always one more experiment to run, one more resource to check. And even when he did publish, he insisted on calling his epochal book [The Origin of Species] ‘an abstract,’ as if to apologize in advance should anyone find it incomplete.” With this story, Santella introduces what he calls “one of the most basic rules of procrastination: ‘Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.’” Certainly almost everyone does this (and all writers, including me, confess to it, as Santella points out). His research, he says, “turned up the same figures again and again: 20 percent of us are chronic procrastinators; a third of all American undergraduates call themselves severe procrastinators; 100 minutes of every workday are dithered away by workers.”

The little jokes along the way kept me reading, like when Santella says that going to talk to the world’s foremost authority on procrastination “about my love affair with procrastination was from the beginning fraught with difficulty, like scheduling an appointment with the family physician to discuss your plan to smoke an additional two packs a day.” Or when he observes, like Walker Percy’s hero in The Last Gentleman, Will Barrett, discovers, that “choice can also be a burden that weighs heavily” and concludes that “a to-do list is a menu, and in the depths of procrastination, what I really want is for the waiter to tell me what to order.”

The many observations about the sometimes-beneficial effects of procrastination also kept me going, like that one of the members of the Lichtenbergian Society (named in honor of an 18th-century thinker who “never seemed able to focus his energies”) succeeded in writing a chapter of the Tom Jones-esque novel their namesake had planned, one that “not only imitated Fielding’s ornate Georgian prose, but also worked in lyrics from “It’s Not Unusual” by the other Tom Jones, the Welsh pop star.” That’s exactly the kind of quality content that keeps me browsing the internet when I should be writing.

Of course, then I found a silly image on a friend’s FB page and then had to write a parody of one verse of the song “I feel you, Johanna” from Sweeney Todd while putting off writing this review: 28660765_2081018382173441_7484589965412601816_n

 

I peel you, banana
I peel you
do they think that skin can hide you?
even now you’re in my fingers
I am in the peel beside you
buried sweetly in your yellow flesh
banana…

 

In one of the final chapters of Soon, Santella connects a story about Frank Lloyd Wright’s procrastination in designing Fallingwater to his subsequent commission to design the Guggenheim museum in New York City, where the exhibition space is, famously, along a spiral ramp most of the size of the entire building. “For Wright,” he says, “the spiral was an image of aspiration and transcendence. On the other hand, the ramp at the Guggenheim works just as well in the other direction. It winds down; it dwindles. Either way the path is roundabout, like the epic hero’s (or like water going down a drain.) The procrastinator’s path is never a beeline, either. You turn away from one thing and toward another, and then back again a few more times. You make only gradual progress. You trust that knowledge can be won and desire satisfied by not seeking either.”

If you have something important to do, you’ll want to go out and get a copy of this book and read it instead. It won’t focus your mind on the task at hand, but will furnish your imagination with lots of interesting ideas, maybe even one that you need to pursue immediately.

 

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. March 4, 2018 1:02 pm

    I’m a terrible procrastinator, I infuriate myself. ‘Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.’ – yep, that’s about it!

    • March 4, 2018 8:33 pm

      I like the way this book explores the positive potentialities of procrastination. Although I’m usually not that much of a procrastinator, to tell the truth.

  2. March 4, 2018 6:19 pm

    That is a magical parody of that song. In fact I am going to sing it that way from now on. You are a genius.

    • March 4, 2018 8:34 pm

      Well, thank you. You certainly know how to give a compliment! I can’t stop singing that song now, sometimes with banana and sometimes Johanna.

  3. March 4, 2018 6:38 pm

    I have learned to handle procrastination (or I would never have finished school or the first novel), but there’s a catch: my brain has to be capable of making decisions, and, due to illness, it usually isn’t. As soon as it comes online for a while, I can do things. But I don’t think you read this book to cure the habit.

    • March 4, 2018 8:36 pm

      No, although there is a section that discusses some theories designed to short-circuit or curtail procrastination. What the author shows is why they usually don’t work the way we think they will.

  4. March 5, 2018 12:59 pm

    I used to be terrible at procrastinating in high school and college. I seem to have gotten better as an adult, but then again I’m not exactly writing papers anymore. I feel like my procrastination was about fear of failure, honestly. Which I guess could be related to perfectionism? I’ve tried as an adult to let one of Gretchen Rubin’s sayings be my motto: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

    • March 5, 2018 1:20 pm

      Yes, the fear of failure is definitely related to procrastination, even for Charles Darwin, evidently.
      The Rubin saying is good advice. This book meanders around the idea that perhaps some of the things we do while leaving bigger projects undone are worthwhile in themselves and might have never been done if not for the human tendency to put off until tomorrow whatever can be put off that far.

  5. March 7, 2018 10:58 am

    Not only am I definitely a procrastinator, but I also love your review of this book. On to the wish list it goes!

    • March 7, 2018 11:00 am

      It’s almost impossible to talk about procrastination without admitting to a few of the ways you do it.

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