Lollygagging and Dilly-Dallying: The Art of Procrastination

Here's a story I've never told.

When I was 11 years old, I decided to enter the school science fair. I never planned on it or even signed up for it. In fact, I never gave it any thought until the very day of the science fair.

Two hours before it started.

To be fair, I was never very interested in science, so this decision was a complete surprise. I couldn't have been more surprised if I had asked to go to Mathlete Camp and stay in the Fighting Fractions cabin.

I called my 6th-grade teacher, Mr. Dalton, at school and asked him when the science fair started.

"In about 30 minutes."

I was sunk. I didn't have a ride to the fair because my dad wasn't home.

More importantly, I didn't have a project.

I wanted to create a volcano because I had seen it on The Brady Bunch. I had visions of building a massive volcano with papier-mâché and mud and thought I could whip it together on the car ride to the school.

But my dad screwed it all up by being at work and not getting home until 15 minutes after the science fair started. My dreams of building a mini-mountain were dashed.

You may think I sounded like a bit of an idiot. And you'd be right. But the bigger takeaway is the fact that I was a terrible procrastinator.

I've always been a terrible procrastinator. Or, depending on how you look at it, a great procrastinator.

But I didn't just achieve that status based on raw talent alone. It took a lot of hard work and practice to be this great. I showed a lot of promise in the early days, putting off book reports and worksheets until the last possible moment, sometimes minutes before they were actually due.

I trained hard, polishing my skills until I could procrastinate with some of the world's greatest lollygaggers and dilly-dalliers.

After all, why do something today that I could put off until tomorrow? Or indefinitely? My whole life has been spent putting things off to the last moment. Case in point: these columns are due by midnight on Thursday night.

So what has two thumbs and waits until 8:00 p.m. to start writing it?

I reached peak procrastination in college. In fact, I built my entire college career on writing papers the night before they were due. Sometime around 7:00 p.m., I would stroll to the Ball State library and look up references related to my paper's topic. I would amass a pile of 10 or 12 books and photocopy a bunch of journal articles.

To write the paper. I'd make some bold assertion about the topic and then look for some information to support it. I'd flip through book after book until I found what I needed. Then I'd write some more, make another assertion, and flip through the books again.

If I couldn't find something, I'd race back to the library 15 minutes before closing and check out more books. I usually found what I needed that second time, but if I didn't, I'd change the entire paper to fit what research I had.

With this method, I could write a 1,000-word paper by 2:00 a.m. Then I'd give it a quick proofread, print it out, and go to bed until it was time for class.

Dear reader, I always got an A. Every. Single. Time.

My classmates hated me for it. "I spent a week on my paper and I got a C! How did you get an A? What are you, a freak?"

I honestly didn't know.

I never realized I had the makings of a writer until several years later. Mostly because I put off trying to figure out what else I was good at. (Hint: It wasn't science.) By then, it was too late, so I stuck with what I knew.

I never tried to fix my procrastination habit after college. It had served me well for 20+ years, so why fix what ain't broken?

As Douglas Adams famously said, "I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sounds they make as they go by." While I don't miss deadlines, I still enjoy procrastinating from time to time.

I don't do it as often because I was tired of the panic sweat that came with realizing I was nearly out of time on a project. I finally got smart and started working ahead so I could spend the days before a deadline relaxing and wishing I had thought of this in my 20s.

Still, I've written this newspaper column for 27 years, and very rarely do I write it in advance. Those days that I do, I'm still seized with feelings of panic and dread every Thursday at 8:00 p.m., forgetting that I worked ahead.

So, every week, I promise myself that I'll get into the habit of writing it a few days in advance and giving myself some time to relax on a Thursday.

But not just yet. There's time for that later.

Photo credit: Vincent Van Gogh (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

My new humor novel, Mackinac Island Nation, is finished and available on Amazon. You can get the Kindle version here or the paperback version here.