Review of “Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination…” by Andrew Santella

If you’re interested in the topic of procrastination and want to read a carefully put-together collection of diverse perspectives on the topic, I’d recommend this book by Andrew Santella. It is clear that Santella himself has genuine interest in this topic. Reading the book, we could also see how much fun he has had writing it, which in turn makes the book fun to read. He isn’t satisfied with simplistic “theories” or “remedies” of procrastination, and he doesn’t offer us advice. That means the book isn’t self-help (at least on the surface).

The book begins with one of its main characters, important both in the history of procrastination and in human history in general–Charles Darwin. We read about the 20-year gap between the point he essentially had his theory of evolution and the point he eventually completed The Origin of Species. We read about Darwin’s long leisurely walks and his preoccupation with barnacles that perpetually postponed his commitment to writing his books. The figure of Darwin embodies one of the central points in Santella’s book: Procrastination is not laziness. Procrastinators can be active, so busy that we wouldn’t be able to detect them based on their overt behavior. What distinguishes procrastination, we might say, is an interior life. An inner voice that says “there is something else I am supposed to be doing.”

Two conflicting viewpoints run through the book, one of which says “procrastination is good and useful, a testament to human freedom and dignity,” while the other says “procrastination is bad, harmful, and a weakness to overcome.” Although Santella cautiously sides with the first viewpoint, it is important that he develops both sides and gives voice to them both. The conflict between the two viewpoints seems to be rooted in the subject-matter itself. Procrastination is itself full of paradoxes: We love and hate delaying our tasks. When we procrastinate, we are not getting things done, while at the same time we eventually get things done (though the first and the second “things” aren’t always the same).

Santella’s aim is not to choose between the two sides and pass a value judgment (good vs. bad). His aim is understanding. He asks, “Why we procrastinate?” rather than mindlessly asking, “How can I stop procrastinating?” In pursuing the “Why” question, he does not settle on a single answer. And the set of possible answers he considers are not all positive. According to the negative side of the debate, procrastination can be a way to guard ourselves against reality. When we don’t try, we don’t test our ability to achieve a goal and, therefore, we avoid confronting our inadequacy. Moreover, through delay and inaction, we might keep alive the project, the belief that we are in pursuit of something, and that our life is meaningful. The pursuit itself might be more important than achieving the goal that motivates it. In other words, we might sabotage a project in order to keep its underlying desire (this fits the idea that the true object of desire is desire itself).

Viewed under a positive light, procrastination is a form of rebellion or resistance against the “cult of efficiency”, against turning humans into machines of production. The possibility for procrastination, as people have said about leisure, is the bedrock of civilization. We read about Guy Debord’s attitude toward not-working as a way to disrupt the authoritarian order. We read about Jacques Lacan’s use of delay in mystifying his patients and intensifying his method of therapy. We read that slowness, slow and deliberate movement, is an essential character of pilgrimage. It is, indeed, worthwhile to stop and ask: Why does it not make sense to demand a pilgrimage to be quick and efficient?

Among the colorful characters in the book, we meet Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799), the genius-dabbler who planted many creative seeds but didn’t follow through with any of them. What is specially noteworthy about Lichtenberg that he is remembered for something he himself didn’t take very seriously, namely the aphoristic writings in his personal notebooks. This can similarly caution us: We might be wrong about what we take to be our most lasting or important contribution. Consequently, it might be pointless to be distressed about not putting more effort in project A as opposed to project B. It turns out that, for many people, their side (unofficial) projects become more important and worthwhile than their main (official) projects. The confidence with which we harass ourselves into laboring on our main projects, therefore, isn’t justified and deserves questioning.

It is reassuring to read that procrastination has a long history, beginning far before the advent of the internet and smartphones. Procrastination is currently common (around 20% of people think of themselves as chronic procrastinators, and this number is higher in undergraduate students), but complaints about procrastination have been expressed for centuries. The author relies on a wide range of sources in discussing procrastination, as an idea, as a problem, as something to cultivate and support, as something to understand: We read about Albert Ellis, and his method of contrived urgency, about Edgar Alan Poe’s The Imp of the Perverse, Umberto Eco’s fondness for lists. I found Santella’s discussion of lists particularly engaging. He points out the hidden association between lists, and the activity of writing a list, with a kind of mystery and desire for immortality.

In addition to Darwin, Leonardo da Vinci, Saint Augustine, Lichtenberg, and the Lichtenbergian Society, we also read about more recent scientific literature on self-regulation and procrastination. I very much enjoyed Santella’s fair treatment of the science. He covers it, considers it carefully, but does not fully buy into it. He maintains a healthy distance from scientism. Rather than taking the final word from psyshometricians, he insists on being regarded as an individual, rather than a type (through the lens of social science). This is precisely what it means to engage critically with scientific research. Critical thinking does not mean being dismissive of a perspective. It means finding the proper place for each perspective. And that is something at which Santella is very skillful. He has put together an engaging and informative collection of perspectives on the topic of procrastination, binding them all together with his own personal concern, with his own entanglement with procrastination. The result is a good book that offers further paths of explorations, in case you are interested in reading more about the topic.

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