Never do today what you can put off until the next millennium. This mantra describes my default setting and I have to muster everything in my brain’s counter-inertia armoury to combat it. In other words, I am a world-class procrastinator, who will do almost anything to avoid certain vital tasks, but then skulk around in a lather of self-loathing at my own ineptitude. It’s no exaggeration to say I had two children and started a couple of businesses in order to defer writing a memoir. Eighteen years later, it’s still a work in progress. I once didn’t pay my tax bill for five years and had to hand thousands of pounds in fines to HMRC. It’s not even to do with lack of finance; I generally have the money saved but would rather swallow rat poison than fill out the forms.
It would take many years to list all my acts of chronic deferral, but here’s a representative sample. I am so bad at invoicing people that I’m still owed £5,400 from various publications, dating back fifteen years. I once bought a rocking horse on eBay and then took five years to arrange to have it picked up; in the end the seller emailed me saying he’d burn it if I didn’t send a man in a van pronto. I left a broken gold chain at a jeweller’s for so long that crippling shame meant I was unable to recover it. The desk and floor in my home office became so swamped with unopened bills, bank statements, books and letters that I abandoned the room and started working from my bed. On top of that, I was so frozen with horror at sorting out a proper bedroom for my older son that he slept in his cot until he was nearly five. Admittedly, it was a very big cot and we removed one side – but remembering my parental failings still brings me out in hives. And even now I have half-written letters scattered all over my bedroom expressing love, regret, or sorrow at a death, or thank you for wonderful gifts. These missives haunt my boudoir like accusatory spectres, whispering of my manifold failings: the woman who can’t get to the post office.
Ten years ago, after I outlined my disorder in a national newspaper, a BBC Radio Four producer approached me to suggest I front an audio documentary titled Helping Hamlet: Can Science Cure Procrastination? The project required a terrifying level of self-excavation and was marketed with my own words on my “chronic” condition: “fear, guilt and horror”. The unholy trilogy. It was clear to the lovely producer that I was indulging in a form of self-harm and should try therapy. So he sent me around the country talking to experts who advised sensible remedies like: make lists and tick some chores off each day, form a self-help group for mutual encouragement, hire a stern taskmaster. What I didn’t say on air was: “Do you think I’d be this deranged if I was actually capable of adopting sensible, preventative strategies?” I interviewed the author Geoff Dyer who’d once put off finishing a book by writing another volume entirely – which sounded incredibly productive to me. Then I talked to a Rabbi, who said procrastination doesn’t exist within the Jewish faith. This seemed a bit far-fetched, but when I talked to the writer Giles Coren he said it was true. Coren told me he pens articles as soon as he’s set the task. Needless to say, I write them as the deadline hurtles towards me like a runaway juggernaut powering down a hill.
The one conversation that proved useful was with renowned psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. She asked me if I’d always suffered from procrastination, or if it suddenly manifested itself. I told her I’d been productive and swotty until I was fifteen, at which point various demands on my life seemed overwhelming. She paused and then asked gently if it was possible I had a fear of growing up and the responsibilities that came with it. If you listen to the documentary (which is intermittently available on the BBC) you can tell she’s sent a lightning bolt right to the core of me. I start to gibber, then haltingly confess that I was, indeed, bloody terrified of all that. “Still am” is what I didn’t say, although it was implicit. Where other people get on with the business of being an adult, I’ve long taken shelter in a pseudo-teen persona. In fact, one of the many reasons I married my kind spouse is that I knew he’d make sure our house was never repossessed on account of an unpaid parking ticket.
Orbach’s dose of psychoanalysis gave me the jolt I needed. I realised my sons deserved two adults in the house and a more competent mother. After the programme was broadcast I paid my tax bill and took on an accountant to badger me into future compliance. I opened more envelopes, read and deleted more emails, and better accepted the burdens of adulthood. In fact, I was pretty damn virtuous – by my lights – until 2020 when the Covid pandemic hit our shores. On reflection, nothing was more likely to set back a recovering procrastinator than a nationwide lockdown, when everything crashes to a standstill. But the fascinating thing was everyone else caught my malaise. Even the most orderly, competent individuals I knew started lounging around in fleece pyjamas ignoring admin and doing sweet FA. And when some restrictions lifted, many didn’t want to return to their whirling, task-ticking former lives.
I suppose the takeaway lesson is that teens may have cracked the secret to life and maybe we should emulate it more. As they snuggle under their duvets until teatime, they might as well be yelling:
“What do we want? Not quite sure!”
“When do we want it? Whenever!”
Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review