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Be There in a Minute

January 19, 2003

Here's a subject we've been meaning to write about for some time: procrastination. Putting things off is natural; the people of Atlantis had been meaning to retrofit their city against quakes for years. But these days Americans, still claiming the need to recover from December's orgy of obligations, are well on the way to perfecting procrastination. It's just taking a lot longer than expected.

Procrastination is not well researched because we're way too busy. But the United States has developed procrastination opportunities to fill an entire six-month season. It starts with putting off holiday shopping and cards, slides into putting off paying holiday shopping bills and fulfilling New Year's resolutions, then Valentine's cards and gifts and merging seamlessly with putting off income tax preparations. There's even an unconfirmed historical report that the signing of the Declaration of Independence was originally set for June 28.

The easiest excuse for procrastination is being too busy. Who can dispute that? It's as if some celestial being has nothing better to do but send down urgent assignments that require postponing everything we don't want to do anyway. "It's just been crazy here," someone will say, meaning: I'd call, write, visit, but you're not really important enough for me to interrupt more fun things.

A major symptom of procrastination -- did you just hear something outside? -- is the distinct ability to be distracted from any task by the smallest thing -- a dirty window, an unusual sound, a comb that needs cleaning. Suddenly, that must be handled first. Expert procrastinators also know they can put off a dreaded dental visit for three or four days by calling the dentist -- oops -- at 5:05 p.m. on a Friday and not leaving a message.

Also, talking about procrastination is useful. It enables many procrastinators to consume all available time and put something else off because pretty soon you're too tired from talking about putting it off to do anything but put it off again until you can rest a bit, which somehow doesn't require putting off. Look, we're almost out of space already.

The national malady of procrastination has even created a new profession, procrastination counselors who will, for a prompt fee, help guide procrastinators into a 112-step recovery program. Typically, this focuses on handling one small part of what's being procrastinated, say, cleaning a cluttered garage. Today, throw out one box. That's all. Feel good about that. And tomorrow you can do another.

Although this could seriously damage the nation's guilt production, it might be a good idea to call one of those counselors. We're going to do that just as soon as we finish putting off finding the perfect personal trainer.

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