There’s a snappy little refrain that goes: ‘to win you must first begin.’ It’s one of those sayings that can eat away at me in annoying whine, as I sit ruminating about what’s to be done and how best to avoid doing it. ‘You can’t plough a field by turning it over in your mind,’ is another way of saying the same thing. And, whilst I’ve never ploughed any fields, I’ve surely done a huge amount of sod turning in my head. Are you good at procrastinating, or are you one of those people who hit the pain barrier full on, knowing it’s not going to be as bad as you think? That’s the thing: when you start into whatever this blocked activity is, the act of ‘doing’ rarely matches the mammoth difficultly you’ve created in your mind. Here’s another one: ‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.’ That saying I don’t much like, because we really shouldn’t be eating elephants.
As I think about it, more and more aphorisms crowd my head. We like to stereotype nations, branding the Spanish as the lazy, procrastinating ones, feet up, hat tilted forward for a siesta on the deck while they swat away tasks like irritating wasps, muttering, “mañana, mañana.’ However, it would be foolish to believe that procrastination vexes only the Spanish. ‘We’ll kick that into the long grass’, ‘sleep on it’, ‘put it on the long finger’ – isn’t muttering ‘mañana’ a universal human trait? Of course, we’ll eventually run out of fingers and run out of tomorrows, and when we do, there is nothing quite like last minute, blind panic to slay the procrastination dragon.
Delayed activity is a source of much humour. It’s hard not to smile at the Mark Twain quote: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done the day after tomorrow just as well.” Great, I’ve found my justification. Take last week’s snow: wasn’t that just the thing for turning feral with procrastination? The perfect excuse to put everything on hold, even indoor activities, entirely unaffected by snow drifts. But the weather was so unusual, fierce and brutal that one felt justified in putting everything on the back burner. Schools out, working from home, can’t get the bin out, car can’t be moved, garden is under wraps for at least another two weeks, no milk in the shops: lets just hunker down and forget the ‘to-do’ list – maybe forever. There’s another oft quoted line, something like: ‘I’m not a procrastinator, I’m just extremely productive at unimportant things.’ It’s amusing, but this one gets me to thinking how we sometimes put things off as a way of hiding, telling ourselves that we’re rubbish, untalented, so we may as well not begin.
Many mornings I look at a blank page, and look, and look. I make some tea, then look again. (Compulsive tea brewing: the ultimate procrastination tool). Dramatic sigh: I can’t begin, I won’t begin, I give up. Then Charles Dickens strides into my kitchen (he really does). He is bossy and truculent, just what I need, and he calls me by my name, yelling, “E., procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!” And with that he’s gone. He leaves me wondering at the determination of prolific writers, or painters, or poets; those teachers and doctors and shopkeepers who can’t and don’t procrastinate and their life is all the more full for it.
‘Begin’, by Brendan Kennelly
“Though we live in a world that dreams of ending
that always seems about to give in
something that will not acknowledge conclusion
insists that we forever begin.”
Snow melts, droughts end, buds sprout on bare branches, change happens, and all procrastination eventually comes to an end, one way or another. Let’s begin.