In defense of procrastination

''Procrastinator!'' is the mudball we throw at people who put off doing what we want them to do when we want them to do it.

A student who chooses to see ''Reds'' instead of writing a term paper is a procrastinator to the teacher. But to Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton, here is a person who understands priorities.

Procrastination is in the eye of the beholder.

The laws of procrastination read like this:

1. Everybody puts first things first - it's just that we can't believe some people's taste.

2. Everybody, finally, is a procrastinator, because who doesn't put off something?

Unfortunately, the mudball stockpile is mostly in the hands of the apostles of work, who use procrastination as a synonym for laziness. A study in the current Psychology Today follows the standard procedure, dredging up all the horrible examples a moralizing overachiever could ask for. There is the case of the male student - majoring in psychology, no doubt - who puts off homework by playing just one more little game of pinball, and then another. Even more unforgettable is the woman who desperately reads cereal boxes to keep from getting down to business - a scene right out of Dante.

The Psychology Today analysts of procrastination are most understanding. They point out that Case A is a procrastinator because he is a ''perfectionist,'' Case B is a procrastinator because she is ''frightened of success,'' and a lot of Cases C are simply ''rebelling.'' But the fact is, in all cases what they are rebelling against is work of a rather routine sort - and yet in all cases the procrastination is regarded as reprehensible.

Are not workaholics procrastinators in their own way too? Workaholics put off vacations. Workaholics put off their families. Workaholics put off cultivating a fully human life. But a vague moral heroism surrounds their procrastination like a halo while the more usual procrastinator is judged to be selfish - immature.

It may be time to put in a good word for procrastination. How many deeds, we must ask ourselves, would not be better left undone? The bureaucrat who never procrastinates - who punctually grinds out the memos and fills out the forms - can become a minor menace to the world and to himself. The military leader who never procrastinates when the ''appropriate response'' is due may simply get his country into war more promptly.

A little procrastination is part of the rhythm of life. Every writer practices procrastination in moderation - at least. How else do you build up the cadence of ebb and flow that finally bursts into words?

Every romance used to be a kind of procrastination - a dance toward and away from the first kiss. A hesitation waltz. What has been lost by abolishing such artful procrastination in favor of the brisk code of undeferred gratification? We are beginning to find out.

Delay - the blinking yellow light - is about all that gets us through the literal and figurative intersections of daily life. What if everybody drove literally like a teen-ager, or figuratively like the chairmen of the board of the Fortune 500?

Procrastination is an accommodation necessary in a crowded world. Somebody has to be yin to all the yang-yang-yang.

Does this mean the procrastinator should be our hero instead of the workaholic - the agitator with the foot on the accelerator and hand on the horn? Not quite. But viewed in a certain light, philosophers and even saints are procrastinators. They decide deliberately to put off the petty oughts-and-musts that harass one's soul and keep one's vision at the level of ants' knees.

A procrastinator may be - just may be - a person in search of a higher duty.

If, like that professional procrastinator, Thoreau, you choose to ''front only the essential facts,'' we say more power to you, and never mind the neighbors - at least until tomorrow.

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