The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can a new self-help book cure procrastination? I tried it and here’s what I found.

November: Bent on fomenting trouble, my crafty and mischievous editor emails me asking if I’d like to write about a self-help book called “The End of Procrastination,” by Petr Ludwig (St. Martin’s, paperback; $15.99). As it happens, I am not prone to procrastination — I’m too high-strung — but in the spirit of . . . science, I agree. Maybe I could use some self-help!

Dec. 8: After an exchange of increasingly lame deadline jokes, my editor sends the book, and I dig in. I am ready to be self-improved!

Dec. 8, later: Right away, I run into trouble: “The old saying ‘Don’t put off till tomorrow what you can do today’ really hits the nail on the head” appears in its first pages. The sentence is a trifecta of cliche, mixed metaphor and unnecessary italicization and thus almost personally offensive. I read on.

Dec. 9: Then Ludwig (a “science popularizer” and consultant to European Fortune 500 companies) starts laying out tools for “progressing towards a final version of my vision.” Homework! I’m good at homework! A natural bureaucrat, I actively enjoy filling out forms. I happily dive into making a “SWOT Analysis” (“S=Strengths, W= Weaknesses, O= Opportunities, T= Threats) and printing out “habit-lists” from the official website.

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Dec. 11: Even by the low standards of the genre, this book’s sociological background — “what science knows” — is a dog’s dinner of shopworn management cliches, hacky quotes and dubious pop science. Nonetheless, I am good at following directions, so I obediently make a red dot on my habit-list when I have missed one of my decidedly unambitious daily goals. A green dot signifies success.

Dec. 12: Ludwig keeps piling on the paperwork. I am supposed to schedule a “meeting with myself,” using the inevitable worksheet. I download and open the worksheet and start typing away my goals (“finish Christmas shopping”). On a whim, I email the worksheet to my editor, by way of checking in.

Dec. 12, ten minutes later: My editor, no procrastinator, emails me back saying she can’t open the meeting-with-myself file because The Washington Post doesn’t have the requisite software. I add “GoFundMe to buy doc mgmt sftware for WaPo?” to my “ideas” list.

Dec. 13: Ludwig’s intended audience of a moneyed entrepreneurial class at loose ends is often cruelly ripe for mockery. One of Ludwig’s peers comes to him in dire straits. “Everything is meaningless,” the man says. “I am just going to quit and go get an administrative job somewhere.” Oh, the horror! The squalor! Imagine being reduced to the endless debasement of an “administrative job!”

Dec. 14: Filling out my habit-list, I resist the urge to lie.

Dec. 15: When I get home, I am exhausted; I work in a bookstore, and this is one of the busiest retail days of the year. I snarl at the worksheets and collapse onto my couch for an orgy of junk food and Twitter.

Dec. 16: My moral spiral continues: I catch myself retroactively adding small tasks I have already completed, ex post facto, to the daily tasks sheet, just to cross them off the list. The capitalist thirst for performative efficiency is strong in this one.

Dec. 19: After another punishing day of holiday retail, it occurs to me that my ambient irritation with “The End of Procrastination” stems from its distinctive smell of gig-economy entrepreneurialism, which I consider deeply pernicious. According to Ludwig, “the vast majority of jobs people do today require a creative approach.” He needs to get out of the house more, I decide.

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Dec. 20: I hold the second of my “meetings with myself.” Under the question “What Have I Accomplished Since the Last Meeting?” I write, defensively, “a lot!”

Dec. 23: I have a confession to make. I have been cheating on “The End of Procrastination” by reverting to my beloved hybridized bullet journal to keep me on track. I have committed workflow-tracking-system adultery. I’m sorry, Ludwig. It’s not you; it’s me.

Dec. 24: Visions of televised football dancing in my head, I finish packing for my holiday sojourn in Pennsylvania. I put “The End of Procrastination” and my worksheets on my desk, ready to be resumed after the holiday, but I know deep down that for me, this is really the end of the end of procrastination.

What have I learned? Well, my happiness rating has plateaued at around 6, and my habit-list, like the electoral map on election night, is trending red. But the whole exercise has had from the beginning a whiff of the futile about it. Even Ludwig admits, a touch mournfully, that after reading self-help books, “people tend to quickly forget most of what they have just learned,” and that “no long-term changes occur.”

This general ineffectiveness is the result of an inescapable paradox of self-selection: The people most in need of self-help books are the least likely to read them, while anyone with the discipline to stick to a scheme such as the one laid out here is unlikely to need his guidance.

But there’s more to it than that. My real problem with “The End of Procrastination” (translated by co-founder Adela Schicker) and books of its ilk is that they promise an illusory solution to problems that cannot be solved on an individual level. If only I could stop procrastinating, if only I could be more efficient, if only I could lean in more . . . these books promise to turn us into well-oiled productivity juggernauts while implying that if we are not, the fault is ours alone.

This is cruel and dangerous. What the average American needs is not habit-lists and inner switches but a living wage and affordable housing. Seen this way, procrastination is . . . an act of resistance? Maybe our lives could actually use more procrastination! I think that must be the inner truth the book is communicating! Happy new year!

Michael Lindgren is a frequent contributor to The Washington Post.

By Petr Ludwig. Translated from the Czech by Adela Schicker

St. Martin’s Essentials. 272 pp. $15.99

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