11 Apr 2018

An overdue history of procrastination

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:10 pm on 11 April 2018

Andrew Santella is a terrible procrastinator who's not afraid to admit it. The American writer takes a deep dive into habitual postponement in the new book Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me.

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Photo: (C) Patrick Herrera

We tend to use the word 'procrastinate' to mean any sort of deferral, but putting something off for rational reasons doesn't count, Santella says.

Andrew Santella

Andrew Santella Photo: Facebook

To really claim the title, you have to be aware that delaying action will somehow cost you in the end.

A lot of procrastination is rooted in anxiety and fear, but there's often rebellion and ambivalence in there, too, he says.

"Procrastination is sometimes asking us whether the things the world wants us to do are really worth doing."

While it's easy to blame digital distractions for the tendency today, procrastination has been around for millennia, he says.

Procrastinators can take some pride in carrying on the tradition of Charles Darwin, who must have known his theory of natural selection was a world-changing idea, yet spent two decades editing a gardening magazine and obsessively studying barnacles before publishing Origin of Species.

Vergine delle Rocce (Virgin of the Rocks) by Leonardo Da Vinci

Vergine delle Rocce (Virgin of the Rocks) by Leonardo Da Vinci Photo: Public domain

Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci was to his 15th-century contemporaries the guy who always struggled to finish things, Santella says.

When the Church of San Francesco Grande commissioned Da Vinci to paint Virgin of the Rocks, he may have been otherwise engaged by his to-do list, which included sketching the city of Milan and solving the mystery of saliva production.

"He promised to have this painting done in seven months and finally delivered it 25 years later. That's my guy."

Today's 'cult of efficiency' is overrated, Santella says.

"I think life's a lot more interesting when you take a more roundabout approach, or at least if you recognise there's more than one path to achievement or to understanding. Sometimes the less efficient path leads you to some fruitful detours."

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