Too Soon? A Little More Delay Might Have Been a Good Idea

On the futility of trying to make a vice into a virtue

Posted Mar 22, 2018

Andrew Santella’s most recent book, Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me was just published. Given the title and the publisher’s summary, I was keen to read it. Here's how it is presented on Amazon:

HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio/Fair Use
Source: HarperCollins Publishers and Blackstone Audio/Fair Use

An entertaining, fact-filled defense of the nearly universal tendency to procrastinate, drawing on the stories of history's greatest delayers, and on the work of psychologists, philosophers, and behavioral economists to explain why we put off what we're supposed to be doing and why we shouldn't feel so bad about it.

Like so many of us, including most of America's workforce, and nearly two-thirds of all university students, Andrew Santella procrastinates. Concerned about his habit, but not quite ready to give it up, he set out to learn all he could about the human tendency to delay. He studied history's greatest procrastinators to gain insights into human behavior, and also, he writes, to kill time, ''research being the best way to avoid real work.''

He talked with psychologists, philosophers, and priests. He visited New Orleans' French Quarter, home to a shrine to the patron saint of procrastinators. And at the home of Charles Darwin outside London, he learned why the great naturalist delayed writing his masterwork for more than two decades.

Drawing on an eclectic mix of historical case studies in procrastination -- from Leonardo da Vinci to Frank Lloyd Wright, and from Old Testament prophets to Civil War generals -- Santella offers a sympathetic take on habitual postponement. He questions our devotion to ''the cult of efficiency'' and suggests that delay and deferral can help us understand what truly matters to us. Being attentive to our procrastination, Santella writes, means asking, '’whether the things the world wants us to do are really worth doing.'’

I heartily agree that the book is entertaining. Santella is a good writer, compelling in fact. However, he is also mistaken in his understanding.

I’m writing for Psychology Today from a social-scientific perspective, so I won’t go on about the merits of his art as a writer. Instead, I want to speak directly to his thesis and his argument (while being as brief as possible).

From the outset, Santella makes it clear that his aim is to justify and excuse his procrastination. By the end of the book, he states this aim both as his attempt for an apology and an apologia. I certainly accept his apology, although it wasn’t necessary. That’s his stuff. I hope he forgives himself, as he admits to chronic dilatory behavior, tremendous anxiety and guilt.

He blames much of this guilt on the cult of efficiency, as the publisher summarized above. It’s a misplaced notion. He presents a false dichotomy between some sort of industrial-age notion of productivity and some other vague notion of personal freedom. However, that’s not what procrastination is about. It’s not that we need to or have to live up to some external standard of production and efficiency. It’s not that we have to live up to, as he writes, “the soul-killing demands of the marketplace.”  From my research, I can tell you it’s that we need to have enough agency in our lives to do the things that we think are worth doing.

This is where I depart significantly from the author. I simply don’t agree with him that it’s about “whether the things the world wants us to do are really worth doing.” It’s whether what we decide we should do are things for which we actually have the volitional skills to pursue. If you do read the book, you’ll see many occasions when Santella can’t bring himself to do what he intended to do. It’s not an issue of whether it’s really worth doing. It’s whether he can pull it together to pull it off.

I want to make four main comments about this book.

First, and perhaps most importantly, Santella confuses procrastination with other forms of delay. As one example (of many), the author reflects on Homer’s Odyssey and Penelope’s nightly unravelling of her knitting as a task that will never be done. He wrongly assumes that this never-ending task qualifies as procrastination. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this very purposeful delay was done strategically to benefit Penelope (keep suitors away). It did not – as the author acknowledges about procrastination – count as delay in which the agent expects to be worse off because of the needless delay. The problem is that this is but one example of many in the book. Most of the historical accounts get muddled and confused in terms of what is procrastination and what is some other useful or inevitable form of delay. Even in his lengthy discussion of Darwin, a story with which the author both begins and ends the book, his understanding of Darwin's delay in publication is marred by this basic confusion – was it procrastination or some other form of delay?

Second, throughout the book, Santella makes the dubious argument that because he can identify great thinkers, great men of great accomplishment, whom he considers are also some of history’s great procrastinators, then those of us who procrastinate are equally still capable of great things despite our procrastination. In fact, his argument smacks of the notion that creativity positively demands procrastination. He stretches this even further in many ways arguing that diligence is good for bees but not for people, and that even in the animal world we see procrastination (here misunderstanding what ethologists know as displacement behavior for procrastination).  None of these assertions are supported by any sort of research.

Third, his thesis builds throughout the book to finally embrace John Perry’s notion of structured procrastination, but he doesn’t tell you that. He clearly acknowledges that while procrastinating on one thing, he can get a lot of other things done. This is Perry’s notion of structured procrastination and the focus of a wonderful little book, The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing (well worth reading if you haven't).  This is only one of the few places that the author uses the ideas and concepts from others (e.g., extended will, present-self/future-self) without even acknowledging those who have written thoughtfully about these things already.  In this respect, Santella neither brings something new to the table nor develops these concepts further or more meaningfully.

Fourth, he takes a very light-fingered approach to his research into a scientific understanding of procrastination. Although he begins with my eminent colleague, Dr. Joe Ferrari (DePaul University, Chicago), he gets factual information incorrect even in his discussion of the early work in the area. For example, with a very simple fact such as the location of the 1999 inaugural meeting of the biennial conference series, he writes it was in Germany, not Toronto where it was actually held. Facts matter – even little ones – but the rhetorical purpose seemed more important to the author, as he was able then to compare the attendance at the 1999 meeting (a little over a dozen) to 2015, which was held in Germany, where there were many more attendees (where he got the final number he quoted, I have no idea). Aside from what might seem a trifling matter to many readers, what is most important is that Santella notes how much research he had done and how many papers he had read in the preparation of this book. However, there is little evidence of this research or an understanding of it in the book.

Is his book an apologia?

By the final chapter, the author asks if it’s possible not only to apologize for his procrastination but to make a case for procrastination, like the benefits of red wine?

I think you can guess my answer given my brief comments above. Santella simply can’t turn a vice into a virtue. He remains stuck in the pathos that he documents so well in his prose.

Perhaps Santella just published it too soon? Given his thesis, the book may have benefited from a long walk first.

References

Santella, A. (2018). Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, From Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me. New York: Dey Street Books.