I know people say procrastination is perfectionism but I don’t know how in the world they came up with this idea. I know perfectionists and they don’t procrastinate, they’re just meticulous and over-critical, over-fussy.
I first “procrastinated” twice in graduate school, when I had paper ideas that were not actually viable. Studying on quarters there was no time to change, so I tried to force the papers to take their planned shape anyway. They were hard to write because they were not working, and I called the stalling and thrashing about, “procrastination”. I think it was something else. I wasn’t putting off work, I was avoiding the work that was actually needed, because if I did that work I would not finish by the deadline.
I was also accused of conspiring to procrastinate in graduate school, when I estimated twenty weeks as the time needed to research and write an article while also doing other things. The professor said that would be procrastination. I should not write a publishable article, just write some essay, in ten weeks. Again, I don’t think this was procrastination: I think it was good planning (ten weeks of reading and ten of writing was what I wanted). I made a deal with the professor to give me two quarters of B instead of one quarter of A. I wrote the article and it was published in a good place. People laughed at me as well when I said I could write a dissertation in a year at the rate of six pages a week (they wanted seven very rough pages a day, but I don’t make progress when I write that rough). They were floored when I actually did it (they had also yelled at me every day when they saw me not at the desk, because I was working a job, so they could not believe I was making progress).
My next big procrastination episode came with a book contract that asked for major revisions to the manuscript, requiring major research, that I wasn’t sure would lead in the direction either I or the press actually wanted, to be done in six months when I would also be teaching three courses new to me. I knew it was not realistic but signed on anyway, due to fear of being accused of conspiring to procrastinate (conspiring to be lazy, I suppose, which is a sin). I could not figure out a feasible project plan because there wasn’t one within those time constraints. I wanted to ask someone about it but did not dare due to fear of the pain of being accused of conspiring to procrastinate.
Instead, I just waited to not get tenure. Note what the actual procrastination was: I did not procrastinate on work, but on asking the question I needed to ask. I thought about this clearly at the time. I preferred to have something bad happen for a good reason, not finishing the book, over the possibility of abuse and a false accusation of conspiring to procrastinate. (I also wanted someone to volunteer the suggestion that I ask the needed question, and would fish for this, but was not clear enough about it because I was so fearful that I might instead get an accusation of conspiring to procrastinate.)
People did not understand why I was not devastated, but rather pleased, over the tenure decision. The decision came from a high administrative level, not from those who knew me. The paperwork said everything was excellent except for the non-finishing of this project, and that the university would reconsider if the project were finished within the year. I was pleased because everything was true: nothing false, no apparent bias, nothing trumped-up. The only thing that was wrong was something I knew was wrong and could agree to. This was immensely satisfying because what was wrong was a real thing, not something unjustified or worse, justified but invisible to me–and most importantly, not a character flaw, only a project not finished.
Note, then, where the procrastination is in all of this: it isn’t in not working, it’s in being afraid to ask questions. In the case of the two seminar papers I struggled with, what I really needed was to visit office hours and say I was struggling with the topic and the argument. I was afraid to do this because facing the actual problem could put me past deadline, and also, one was supposed to be willing not to be a perfectionist. I did not think the professors in question would have these reactions; I thought Zeus or Yahweh would. In the case of the book, I again procrastinated about asking the right question. I was afraid because once again, what I wanted to ask was heretical and I feared either immediate execution or torture of a type that would cause permanent disfigurement and disability. It was better to simply freeze.
Note what I have been afraid to ask: (a) can I let the research on the project take it where it will? (b) can I have a reasonable deadline, so that I can concentrate on the work itself? Note that the only constructive answers to these questions are a form of yes. But I not only expected negative answers, I also expected extreme violence and devastating abuse as a result of asking. Note also that when I was accused of conspiring to procrastinate, I went right ahead and did what I was planning, and got an article and a dissertation.
Procrastinating on work, having outright bad work habits, is only something I got into later. I could not understand it. That was when I came up with what you have in this post: it is a form of self-punishment and a separation from self. (One of the ways I have thought about it is as an overdeveloped superego, tied to an underdeveloped ego, that makes one want to retreat into id.)
For me, I still need to refine the theory, because if it is just this odd choice of askesis over the feeling of accomplishment, if that were a sufficient answer, I’d snap out of it. (Note that I procrastinate on many things, on everything that is a required activity, including also work on house and yard, and I only have healthy relationships to art work, political activism, and program design/institutional grant-making. *Because in these activities I do not feel there is some terrible super-ego watching me.*)
So in tentative conclusion: yes, procrastination is self-destructive yet feels good, or feels constructive in some way. But to understand why this is, one must refine the theory. Practical example: in my first academic job I would always stay up too late, because I hated the job and wanted to maximize the time in which I had gotten away from it for the day. Going to bed only brought the next day closer, when I would have to go to the torture chamber again. So once more, for me, procrastination is self-destructive but feels like self-protection, or like *the only way available to grab some space for the self to just be, as opposed to be subjugated to être-pour-les-autres*.
This, actually, could be an important insight. What if procrastination is pleasant because it is the en-soi? What if working should be the pour-soi, but is often the pour-les-autres? What if it is only easy to work if one can be sure it can be pour-soi?
Finally: I could also write about another form of procrastination in which I have engaged, about changing careers, but this post is already long. I would rather end with a newer insight, gained as I wrote this post: I have always procrastinated about speaking for myself, due to fear of extreme violence. The example that came to me while writing is from a conversation with a professor on my Ph.D. examination committee. The exam had been good and she had been surprised: “Don’t take this the wrong way, please, because I didn’t think you would fail, but I didn’t know you were this good. You are always so tentative, so careful, so unwilling to fully engage. What you have done here was brave and you should continue: you can have a brilliant career, I know this now.”
I have of course not had, because of Reeducation in all its aspects. But notice what the professor pointed out: I had always procrastinated about developing my ideas and asserting them. I did not explain to her that I had decided to do this for the examination because as I studied, I realized it would be the only way to pass: if I did not stand on my ideas, I would not be able to organize my thoughts, because there was too much information to retain and organize. So I came out with my ideas, did not procrastinate, because I thought that the best way to avoid failure or death. But in many other instances, I procrastinate because I wish to avoid death.