What Are You Waiting For?
Posted Dec 21, 2019
Activist and folksinger Phil Ochs realized that one day he would no longer be able to work toward peace: “Can't be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone.” He wisely reasoned: “So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”
Ochs’ lyrical insight transcended the political issues of his time. He acknowledged the transience of the most ordinary aspects of living, “I won’t breathe the bracing air when I’m gone,” and the most meaningful, “Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone.” Despite his youth, 26-year-old Ochs was acutely aware of his mortality and was aware of the essentials that continue beyond a person’s life: the pleasures of love, the golden sun, and shifting sands. All in all, he realized the paradox of his finite life within lasting time: “I won’t feel the flowing of the time when I’m gone.”
The message of Ochs’ song is as relevant today as it was in 1966: “I’ll have to do it while I’m here.” Procrastination, needlessly putting off important activities, is common, with prevalence rates reported as high as 20-25 percent in the general population. And up to 70 percent of university students describe themselves as procrastinators.
Considerable research has been devoted to understanding procrastination. Empirical investigations have focused primarily upon delaying tasks that have deadlines, especially in academic settings. Procrastination is counterproductive—associated with increased stress and discomfort resulting from mental preoccupation with the postponed task.
Beyond academic contexts, procrastination is related to higher levels of emotional distress and lower levels of life satisfaction. Excessive reliance on the postponement of task completion can be a risk factor for poor physical and mental well-being. People are more likely to procrastinate when activities are unpleasant or labor-intensive. Having less energy to tackle demanding or unpleasant activities, people who are experiencing negative affects, such as sadness or anxiety, are more likely to postpone dealing with them.
But people put off doing many things that are neither unpleasant nor difficult. It is far too common for people to intend to get around “one day” to calling an old friend, sending a thank you for a favor or gift, or visiting a loved one. One day we’re going to clean up our clutter, organize our mementos or photos, and rekindle a relationship.
We promise those we love that soon we’ll take time for a leisurely lunch or a day in the park. Sometime soon, we’ll engage a child in the fun of baking cookies, finger painting, or a trip to a petting zoo. So many good things we intend to do—as soon as we get around to them. Yet, without warning, the child has outgrown their interest in childish things, the elderly relative has passed away, and our friend has moved away. Time has slipped away.
We know that the passage of time is inevitable, and that time is limited. But that intellectual knowledge doesn’t always compel us to act. It is easier to feel that there is no urgency in doing all that we’d like to do before some vague deadline in an abstract, distant future. Not knowing when our time will run out or when we will die, the timeline of life is amorphous. As country songwriter Tanya Tucker observed: “We all think we’ve got the time until we don’t.”
Why do we so often put off doing the wonderful things we want to do? Postponing them gives us the opportunity to savor them in anticipation—as if we can enjoy them over and over again in advance. Once we’ve done them, they won’t be so special anymore. As long as they’re only wishes, they can stay perfect, unblemished by the imperfections of reality. After all, the child might be bored waiting for the cookies to bake, and they might get their fingers nipped by a goat at the petting zoo. Without deadlines, we don’t feel the pressure of time running our and fewer opportunities to actualize our intentions.
It might seem counterintuitive, but research suggests that people who tend to take a future-oriented perspective are less likely to procrastinate, while people who are more focused on their immediate present concerns are more likely to postpone what they can. Imagining the future as real moves the undefined deadline into the present to urge us to complete our plans before time runs out. We can develop a habit of considering how opportunities can escape us.
Remembering that all too soon, our toddler won’t need us to read bedtime stories or push them on the swing can help ground us in what gives our lives purpose and meaning. People generally avoid thinking about the inescapable reality of death. Thoughts of death are stressful and can create a sense of urgency and a desire for meaning and purpose in our lives.
Reminders of death can induce a denial of one’s own vulnerability to death and encourage attempts to suppress thoughts of death. However, reflecting on the inevitability of mortality can energize active engagement in the present. Inspired by the mention of a funeral, singer Tanya Tucker imagined end-of-life regrets: “I’d have learned to play guitar, tell my daddy more I loved him . . . I wish I’d been a better friend, a better daughter to my mother.” Tucker advised: “Don’t wait to help your sister. Forgive your brother and your neighbor. We all think we’ve got the time until we don’t.”
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Ochs, P. (1966). When I’m gone. On In Concert [CD]. Los Angeles, CA: Elektra.
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