Opinion | How covid changed my chronic procrastination

(Klaus Kremmerz for The Washington Post)

Yiyun Li is the author of a memoir, “Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life,” and numerous works of fiction, including the forthcoming story collection “Wednesday’s Child.”

Here, I dare anyone to find a more dreamlike setting for signing legal papers than this one: It was a spring afternoon, perfectly cloudless, and the magnolias near my campus office bloomed fully, with an insouciance to the ice storm in the forecast. On an empty patio of a restaurant, the heating lamps were not yet packed away; the tables and the chairs, made of wrought iron, showed the first signs of rusting, which added a poetic, weathered feeling.

There, my husband and I met our lawyer, with two of my colleagues walking across the street to be our witnesses. The five of us, masked and spread far from one another, all agreed it felt as though it had been years since we had seen someone in real life. It was April 2020, and when we had arrived at the patio, I had sprayed every table and chair with bleach.

We were there to sign the papers for our living wills, after 15 years of procrastination.

Full confession: Before 2020, I was a mild to moderate, chronic and miserable procrastinator. Most of my appointments — medical, vision, car maintenance, tree-trimming, gutter-cleaning — tended to be overdue. And they were overdue precisely because before they were past due, I was acutely conscious of their looming due dates. I spent more time thinking about making the appointments than picking up the phone. In fact, I had a notebook in which I listed all the tasks that needed to be done. Then I listed them again. Then again. The lists only grew longer.

At the same time, I agonized over my tendency to procrastinate, until the agony was too sharp. Then I reconciled with my weakness. Then something reminded me of the unmet goals and the un-checked-off tasks, and I had to face my hopeless procrastination. I became anxious again.

What causes your brain to procrastinate and how to face it

You get the gist of the cycle.

The idea of a living will, along with life insurance, had been first put to me by a colleague in 2005. We both had young children then, mine in preschool, hers in kindergarten. She emphasized the importance of a living will and life insurance, which, she explained to me, were part of our parental responsibilities toward our children. “Look, I know you find it weird and depressing,” she said. “But I can guarantee that you’ll feel so much better when you get them done.”

My husband and I investigated term life insurance. We did comparison shopping, contacted the underwriters, had our medicals done and signed our names on the dotted line. After that, we began to talk about finding an estate lawyer, which put me in a debilitating agony.

For a while, my husband would mention the task yet to be finished. Yes, I knew it was important, but the question of looking for the right guardians for my young children in case of both parents’ deaths was always there to unleash my imagination. There was no complexity in the psychology of this procrastination. The hurdles were my fear and apprehension. After a while, the topic was dropped.

Even healthy people need a living will, but many people don’t want to think about it

Fast-forward to 2020: Life, in those 15 years, had not been uneventful. We were older now, solidly middle-aged. We had lost one child, and the other had been in high school for less than half a year before being sent home, along with students around the nation, for virtual education.

There was a pandemic, with the accompanying soundtrack of sirens, with people retreating behind their doors if they could, with the news of people dying — friends’ parents, then friends’ friends. That spring, wild animals became bolder. Foxes and turkeys trotted down the empty streets of Princeton, N.J.; one day, some giant crows congregated on our front lawn.

This time, I experienced no apprehension. I wrote to our lawyer and made the earliest possible appointment to sign our living wills. Afterward, she congratulated us, which at first did not make sense. We did not win a lottery; we did not accomplish anything noteworthy; we only did something sensible, after 15 years of not being able to do it.

But three years later, I now think she was right to congratulate me, even if she was merely acting out of professional courtesy. For what has happened since that encounter — and this is no small thing — is that my relationship with procrastination has changed.

Pico Iyer: Covid taught me what life might look like after death

The word “procrastinate” derives from the Latin “prō-” (“forward”) plus “crāstinus” (“belonging to tomorrow”). There is always tomorrow! it says. If this is true, I began to ask myself, can one find solace that, despite the agony that comes with the habit, a procrastinator is fundamentally an optimist — one who believes that when tomorrow comes, things can, and will, be done?

But tomorrow doesn’t always come — not for some of our loved ones, not for some of our favorite places. Which complicates how one thinks about this, or at least how I do.

There is no tomorrow for the salon I used to go to, where I had an ongoing conversation about philosophy and religion with my hairdresser, an immigrant from Hong Kong with a master’s degree in theology. It closed during the pandemic.

The last time I saw my Ukrainian massage therapist, in February 2020, she was about to submit paperwork on behalf of her adult son so they could reunite after 20 years of separation. Her business was shut down that spring — but worse, I fear, her reunion with her son will be indefinitely postponed, first by the pandemic, now by the war in Ukraine.

So much of life is beyond our control, a fact heavily underlined by the pandemic and the many forms of losses in the past few years. Sometimes, it is hard to be optimistic.

Why not, then, be kinder to oneself, accepting that one should not resort to self-punishment for things not in one’s control, which, to me, include my character flaw of procrastination? These days, I am still a mild to moderate, chronic procrastinator — but somewhat less miserable. I know that at some point, things will get done, a few days late, a few weeks late. Even 15 years late. But when things remain undone, I refuse to chastise myself: There is nothing good in letting procrastination, which I have to reconcile to live with, come between me and myself, causing unnecessary conflict and tension.

Things don’t always get done late these days. When I face a new task, I weigh my options: Will I suffer more from the pressure to tackle the task or from the guilt of procrastinating? If the former, I put off the task for now and stop thinking about it — there are more tasks in any case. If the latter, I do it right away, no space allowed for procrastination.

The pandemic has not taught me to break the habit. But it has taught me to be a better procrastinator: with more calculation and less pain.

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