Jessie Raymond: Better living through procrastination
April 15 is just around the corner, and you know what that means: Time to hone your finest procrastination techniques.
Hey, it’s no coincidence that spring cleaning coincides with tax season. You start thinking about capital gains, non-qualified deductions, thresholds and exclusions, and what do you say to yourself? “Wow, when is the last time I washed and ironed all the curtains? I can’t possibly deal with my offshore exempt dividends until I’ve taken care of those.”
There’s nothing like an impending deadline to inspire you to do the boring stuff you generally avoid. When the task in question is overwhelming, unpleasant orscary — or, in the case of taxes, all of the above — the best way to handle it is to put it off as long as possible and then barrel through it in a dead panic at the very last minute. You can blame the lack of time on all the other stuff that absolutely had to get done first, and as a bonus you can excuse the dubious quality of the final product on the unavoidable rush.
In the next week or two, tax filers all over the country will develop a sudden need to clean behind their refrigerators and untangle and color-code their computer cords — anything to avoid figuring out how to report “reimbursements made (or treated as made) under a nonaccountable plan, even if they are for deductible expenses (a nonaccountable plan is any plan that does not meet the rules for an accountable plan as described in Chapter 5 of Publication 15, Circular E).”
But it doesn’t have to be about taxes. Any dread-filled deadline will do. There’s something in human nature that sees a looming date on the calendar and immediately begins plotting ways to avoid preparing for it. People have been doing it for centuries.
For example, why do you think the Gettysburg Address was so short? Because Lincoln had spent the day before rearranging his collection of stovepipe hats, that’s why. He is reported to have said, “All right, Mary, get off my back: I know I have to get to that speech. But my hat shelf is a disaster. I can’t work until I get it sorted out.”
Had he left himself time to write a second draft, you can bet he would have at least tightened up that “four score and seven years ago” bit. (As addresses go, it was fine overall; the opening could have used a little editing, that’s all I’m saying.)
I have read that you procrastinate because you don’t know how to get started and worry you won’t do a good job. This makes sense. But I think instead of treating procrastination as a flaw, you should embrace it. After all, it gets you to take care of all kinds of monotonous tasks that would never get done if you weren’t facing a stressful deadline.
I no longer have the pressure of tax prep to drive my spring cleaning mojo, since we get our taxes professionally done these days. But I have other ways to make procrastination a part of my life, all year long. If you, too, have passed your taxes off to someone else, I suggest you find a hobby that requires an ongoing commitment. That way you can come up with new and creative ways to procrastinate on a regular basis.
Find an outlet that requires a moderate to extreme level of mental effort and takes up slightly more time than you would prefer. Also, make sure people are counting on you. The guilt of not doing the associated work in a timely fashion will drive you to procrastinate, which in turn will ensure that your spice jars are labeled in your finest calligraphic script and the items in your linen closet are organized by item, color and fabric content.
You’ll spend hours hating yourself for not doing what you know needs to be done, but your baseboards will gleam like never before.
There are dozens of roles that can put you in a position to procrastinate. Organize a large public event. Become a Scout leader. Produce a play.
Even better, get yourself a biweekly newspaper column. You’ll be miserable for a day or so every other week, but you’ll have the best-looking spice jars in town.
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