The Thief of Time: Deferment and Procrastination
My advice is, never do to-morrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time. Charles Dickens
by Lucy E.M. Black
Often at the end of a busy day, my partner will look at me and say, “We got a lot done!” Both of us have crazy work ethics, and the expression has become something of a private joke. We spent years being over-busy, squeezing things in, and setting aside personal care, including fitness regimens, spa dates, vacations, and life-enriching things like the symphony and theatre. This changed with a major health scare.
Climbing the Great Wall of China was one of those bucket-list things I had always wanted to do. Three years ago, when I finally made it to Beijing, I was unwell. I knew that when I returned home, I would need surgery. I decided that I would at least climb the wall before submitting to whatever else was in store for me. I was fortunate in that things turned out to be far less dire than the surgeon had originally suggested, but the incident precipitated some major stock-taking and life changes nonetheless. Although I hadn’t really intended to do so, I decided abruptly that it was time to retire. I had heard many stories of people who saved for their retirements or planned major trips that they would never take because they suddenly developed health issues. I didn’t want that to be my story.
We have all learned how to do more in this hands-free, plugged-in, fast-paced environment. We preview e-mails on our phones while waiting for the bus and subway. We text our ETA while rushing to a meeting. We Google the news or the weather while half-listening to conversations. We have to be reminded to turn off our phones in meetings, public performances, and social settings. I began to ask myself, “Is what I am accomplishing so important that I can’t take time to do what I really want?”
When I hear friends talking about doing something “one day” or wishing that they “had time” to do something or pondering the “commitment” or the “expense” of doing something, my ears perk up. I recognize the narrative. For me, deferring pleasure has always seemed responsible. I would wait until we had more time, more money, fewer demands. Such an approach seemed “adult.” By putting the needs of others and our various commitments ahead of our own desires, the two of us were kept busy doing those things people expected of us without focusing on those that we really wanted to do: special holidays, lazy afternoons spent reading a book, long drives in the country, or picnics by a babbling brook. What I realize now is that these are the things that make life feel rich. And the occasions when we can most easily nurture our intimate relationships and our deepest selves.
My personal health scare has made me keenly sensitive to issues of deferment or procrastination. In lieu of the daily to-do lists that previously directed my working life, I now make a weekly list of priorities. Although this list still includes a background of living chores, I also make sure to add something fun. I prioritize time for the symphony or a book store visit or a whimsical project into my week. The time in my life for deferment is over. I no longer wait for some future time in the upcoming years to do these things. This is not because I need instant gratification but rather because I have reached that place in my life where work demands, financial responsibilities, and health issues are such that I choose to make the most of what time I have.
I am advocating neither irresponsibility nor selfishness. What I do wish for my friends and family, however, is that they would also seek to enjoy their lives fully without deferring the good things or constantly prioritizing work demands above family and pleasure. It is so important that we engage in those things we are passionate about, and that we navigate our lives with the openness to respond to opportunities and adventures—and to savor those special, single moments. I no longer think that life is meant to be lived cautiously. Yes, it’s absolutely right not to be careless with either the opportunities we receive or the feelings of others. But that should not negate the privilege of also living with just a little impetuousness.