Sunday, October 24, 2010

Procrastination

I consider myself a master procrastinator. (I feel somewhat confident that I'm not alone in this feeling.) One could even argue that this entire blog is one large effort to waste time. After all, there are a number of other things that I should and could be doing instead of writing this post, right now. And depending on where and when you’re reading this post, you may very well be procrastinating as well. (Of course, justifying such procrastination isn’t hard. At least you’re not wasting your time with other, more inane, time-wasting sites. When it comes down to it, one could view the entire Internet as one huge procrastination machine?)
With procrastination on my mind, I noticed an interesting detail in the Torah reading this week.After the angels arrive in Sodom to tell Lot to get the heck out of Dodge, as pretty soon there won’t be any Dodge, we find that after Lot fails to convince his sons-in-law of the impending doom, he dawdles. ויתמהמה – “and he delayed.” (see Beraishit 19:16) In fact, the trop on this word is the unusual shalshelet, so the whole word is read in a lazy, time-wasting way. Why did he dawdle? Rashi explains that he spent the night working, “to save all his money.” Ironically, for all his effort, he left Sodom empty-handed. Radak offers a slightly different take on the same theme, writing that Lot, “continued to delay as if he was worried about the money he was leaving. For this reason they were delayed until the morning and they could not allow him to take anything with him.”
Why did Lot delay the entire night? Why, if he truly believed that the city faced destruction, did he not immediately collect what he could and leave? If we think about it ourselves, would we be that different? Something inside him found it hard to leave. Although he knew that Sodom was doomed, he hoped that it wasn’t. He put off his departure until the final possible moment – and in doing so lost the possibility of saving any of his beloved property.
Lot’s actions don’t make any sense. But they are quite human.
Time-wasting occupies my thoughts after reading an interesting and thought-provoking article on the subject in a recent issue of the New Yorker. (I’m almost caught up from my summer vacation.) The article, which tries to answer the time-tested question of why we push things off without any sense or reason, makes a number of different suggestions. Some theorize that we put short-term needs ahead of long-term goals (I want to watch The Office now; I don’t want to finish designing the course for which I need to get paid). Others suggest that our propensity to delay reflects inner dual-personalities in which the two parts of me (“The Office”-watcher vs. educator) battle for control.
But when I think about myself, I’ve always considered my personal propensity for procrastination to be rooted in something a bit darker: an inner fear of failure. I don’t always watch TV to procrastinate. I often write on this blog, which isn’t always “easy.” Writing takes effort, thought, energy, wittiness, skill, literary prowess – you get the point. I actually like writing. But why then don’t I write the book that I’ve got in the back of my head instead of this quick piece? Sure, there’s the instant gratification from checking the Feed Stats of this blog. But, if I probe a little deeper, maybe I haven’t really started writing the book as I’m afraid that I won’t finish; or it won’t come out well; or no one will really like it. If you don’t like this post, no big deal. You were about to check the NFL highlights anyway. But if you don’t like a book that I worked on for a year or more – that’s painful. I’ve wasted a heck of a lot of time. I’ve invested a lot of myself – all for nothing.
And yet intellectually I know that it’s going to be a great book. And I’ve really got to finish writing that course. Time to get back to work and stop procrastinating.