The Greatest Procrastinator in History Still Alive: Puts Off

The World's Greatest Procrastinator Alive: Puts Off Death.

Posted Mar 07, 2011

President of The Procrastinators Club of America

In honor of International Procrastination Week -- celebrated during the first or the second week of March, depending upon how much you put it off -- we'll feature the greatest procrastinator in all human history (yes, I know, besides you). In my book The Procrastination Equation I mentioned Samuel Coleridge, one of the great poets of the nineteenth century. Though he did manage to finish The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Coleridge completed little else, constantly putting off almost every obligation or project he ever had. He is surely in the running, but was he the greatest? There are plenty of others to choose from.

Dr. Samuel Johnson, who wrote the first English language dictionary, is a credible candidate. As his friend Hester Piozzi remembered, he did almost all of his composition last minute, including a famous essay about procrastination for The Rambler, which he finished while the errand boy waited outside to bring it to press. Or consider Richard Sheridan, a politician and playwright, who did Dr. Johnson one better; he finished writing the final act for his play The School for Scandal while it was being performed on opening night, bringing down lines piecemeal to the actors. And then there is Leonardo Da Vinci. Who among us is called out as a distractible, doodling scatterbrain by a pope? An exasperated Leo X exclaimed, "This man will never accomplish anything! He thinks of the end before the beginning."

But I'm going with none of these. In fact, the person I want to celebrate is still alive: Mr. Les Waas. Born two weeks late, Waas is an advertising executive from Pennsylvania, deviser of a thousand jingles including the one Mr. Softy ice cream trucks use to lure children. What makes Les the greatest procrastinator isn't the amount he procrastinates; he ran his own advertizing agency for 46 years and served as president for his regional chapter of the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Independence Toastmasters, and the Broadcast Pioneers of Philadelphia, so he has a history of accomplishment behind him. Rather, it is the flair with which he procrastinates, which is unequalled. You see, Les Waas is also the president of the Procrastination Club of America, the PCA. To be precise, he is the acting president, as subsequent elections have yet to be confirmed. "The presidential nominating committee for 1957 hasn't reported back yet," he explained.

In 1956, Les and a few of his fellow "Mad Men" thought there should be a procrastination club. Stopping by one of Philadelphia's largest hotels, he convinced the manager to put up a sign in front of the ballroom: "The procrastination's club meeting has been postponed." On the way to other events, the press passed the sign and bombarded Les for details, eventually getting him to actually have a procrastination meeting. It was the beginning of what must be the longest run of procrastination pranks ever perpetrated.

THIS POST TO BE FINISHED LATER THIS WEEK. REALLY.  I PROMISE. IT WILL BE REALLY GOOD AND WORTH WAITING FOR...

...AND THANKS FOR WAITING. FIVE DAYS LATER, HERE IT IS.

In 1966, a large group of PCA members took a bus hung with the banner "Excursion to New York's World Fair." That fair had actually closed a year and a half earlier-that is, unless they were heading for the 1939 fair; no one was entirely sure. Dutifully, the club members took snaps of the now defunct exhibits and empty venues.      

In 1976, a PCA delegation flew to England to visit the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. "It isn't one of those fly-by-night bell foundries that come and go," Les assured me, "It's been around for 500 years." Not only did Whitechapel forge the bell in London's Big Ben but also the US Liberty Bell, the one with the crack. Upset over the Liberty Bell's flaw, they demanded Whitechapel provide a replacement, despite the fact that the 200-year warranty expired in the 1950s. After they parading signs saying  "We got a lemon!" Whitechapel relented, "as long as it was returned in the original packaging." While waiting for the rewrapping, Les recommended turning the Liberty Bell around so at least the crack is on the other side. Good advice. I did that with a lamp once and it worked rather well.

The PCA, when it gets around to it, also provides annual prognostications. "We have a 100 percent perfect record," Les Waas brags. "We take a whole year to come up with the things." For example, their 1991 prediction that, "In a stunning display of magic, the Soviet people will make their country disappear," was issued in 1992, the year after the Soviet Republic fell.  Les promises that same success can be obtained with New Year's resolutions: "If I want to make a resolution to lose weight, I wait until I lose the weight and then I make it. I read some place where 98 percent of New Year's resolutions are never carried out. Our resolutions are always carried out because we make them after they happened. That's what procrastination is all about."

At times, the club acts as an advocate for its members, protesting that "early-bird specials" discriminate against procrastinators: "Where are the late-bird specials?" There is the yearly Fifth of July picnic, which is usually postponed until January. And they organized a bucket-brigade to put out the Great Fire of Chicago of 1871.

The PCA also has a political message that is, ironically, ahead of its time. In line with today's financial conservatives, the PCA has urged former US president James Buchanan to retake his office, despite the fact that he died in 1868. Les notes that Buchanan ran the government on a mere $300 million dollars. Similarly, the club advocates a procrastination policy for congressional spending and paying income tax. Regarding the military, "We feel the ultimate thing to procrastinate against is war," Les stresses. "Just think if you kept putting off wars you might eventually forget what you wanted to fight about." To emphasize their anti-war commitment, the club organized protests against the War of 1812, especially its final major Battle of New Orleans-a perfect emblem of procrastination itself as it happened two weeks after the armistice was signed. "We were very successful with the protest," says Mr Waas. "The war's over now."

Today the club boasts at least twelve thousand members, with a presumed additional membership of a hundred million who are about to sign up any day now. It has also spawned similar organizations. At one point, Bern O'Beirne-Ranelagh had aspirations to found the Procrastinators' Club of Great Britain, and will certainly do so momentarily -- or at least that's what a 1994 article in The Independent promises. More tangibly, there is the rather Spartan website of the Procrastinators Club of Norway. Their links page is dedicated to a single word: "links."

Tongue firmly in cheek, the Procrastination Club of America has a serious message. No, it's not "It's never too late to look backward," it's the other one. As Les Waas puts it, "The art of procrastination is such that if you take a step back and look at the things to do, you see there are priorities." There are plenty of things that we could do later and sometimes this includes work itself. Taking time just to relax and live your life, to do nothing, should be a priority at times too.

The PCA sporadically doles out a Procrastinator of the Year award, a process that unfortunately is often stymied. "It seems like we're having a lot of trouble getting nominations from the nominating committee," Les laments. During the club's banquets, apparently, it is not uncommon to open the sealed envelope only to find a blank sheet of paper.  However, occasionally one does slip through, so after 55 years as President of the Procrastination Club of America, I nominate Les Waas for this year's award. His prize? Not only tickets to the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games but also to the Broadway production of Cats. Congratulations Les! I just hope you didn't receive it too soon.

Thank you Les for helping us laugh and deal with our human fallibility. We may be able to reduce procrastination, to make it a manageable and minor flaw, but it will never stop being part of our humanity. Procrastination is who we are, so when we see Christmas lights still up during the spring thaw or birthday gifts arriving a week late, we just have to chuckle knowingly.

To wish Les congratulations yourself or to request a membership for The Procrastinators Club of America, look for his contact information under The Joy of Procrastination at procrastinus.com.

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About the Author

Dr. Piers Steel

Piers Steel has a Ph.D. in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and is a professor of procrastination at the University of Calgary.

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