What if… this is not a Procrastination?

Reconsidering my relationship with work and rest.

Since we started this newsletter, I’ve enjoyed referring to issues as “a Procrastination”. “I’m watching this drama now,” I tell Gayathrii or Peiying, “and after that I’m going to write a Procrastination about it.”

To procrastinate means to delay or put off something. It suggests that there is something else we should be doing but aren’t. Actually, it’s a little worse than that: not only is there something else that we should be doing, it’s also a bad idea to be procrastinating instead of getting it done. It’s a “fuck around and find out” moment, and procrastinating means that we’re fucking around.

That is why, in my experience, procrastination comes bundled with guilt and shame. I feel it when I watch an episode (or two, or five) of a drama and get immersed in the story, yet cannot shake that nervous feeling at the back of my mind, as if I’m about to be caught by a disapproving teacher or boss or colleague at any moment. When I play a game on my phone in the middle of the day, and feel like I have to do it furtively even if I’m alone because it’s a sign of my failure to live properly as an adult. When I read a book or just lie in bed scrolling on social media and have a sinking feeling that I’ll be blaming myself a little later for my incompetence and sloth.

I’ve known this guilt for a long time. We’re close companions by this point; I’m intimately acquainted with the heft of its weight and the tingle it shoots through my nervous system. I remember feeling it as a child, browsing in the aisles of the sundry goods shop near my grandparents’ block, feeling bad because I wasn’t studying for my primary school leaving exams instead. I remember feeling it as a teenager, sitting in a cinema, wondering if I should really be there when the O Levels were looming. I feel it constantly as an adult, to the point where I started thinking that I have a problem with self-discipline.

I read somewhere that procrastination isn’t actually about laziness, but about emotions and more deep-seated anxieties. We procrastinate because we’re worried about failure. We’re secretly terrified about messing things up or things turning out badly, so we put tasks off—it can’t get screwed up if you’ve not even started. So much easier to run away from that fear by doing something else instead, even if we know that the job needs to get done eventually.

More recently, though, I started having another thought while reading or watching drama: what if… this isn’t even procrastination?

I’ve been a busy bee for much of my life. I’ve got used to filling my days with things that need to be done, and when I was younger I genuinely believed I didn’t need a break. I was perfectly happy to keep plugging away, because it felt so satisfying to churn out content, to feel like I was productive and prolific and—perhaps most importantly—needed by or useful to others. I got so addicted to this feeling that it became a habit to volunteer for things, and to say “yes” to pretty much everything. Over time, it started to feel weird to say “no”; it made me feel like I was being lazy or shirking my responsibility, even though there was no reason why it should have automatically been my responsibility in the first place. If I put my foot down and said “no” to something, I would feel so bad about it that I would probably say “yes” to the next thing, or make an offer of something else I could do—defeating the purpose of saying “no” in the first place. This meant that life was always about work, and that anything that wasn’t work was ‘procrastination’.

Maybe this was fine when I was 22, fresh and eager about wanting to try and do everything. But what I’ve been slowly and steadily discovering, at 32 and 33 and 34, is that it’s definitely not fine anymore. There’s only so much work, secondary trauma and responsibility that I can pile on myself before something’s gotta give.

It’s led me to start wondering about the time I spend doing pleasurable things that aren’t connected to my work or activism. I often feel guilty about procrastinating, thinking about the emails I could be answering instead, the writing I could be doing, the effort I could put into going out and doing more original reporting or coming up with plans to make my newsletter or magazine better or more successful. But what if I’m not actually procrastinating? What if the problem is not that I’m binge-watching a drama instead of doing what I should, but that there are just too many things that I think I ‘should’ be doing? What if this is not about putting things off because of a fear of failure, but a sign from my brain and body that I need a break from being so relentlessly ‘on’ all the time?

Human beings are not built to deal with the vast amount of information that flows to us through the internet and our devices. We are not equipped to withstand the deluge; there’s only so much pain, trauma and injustice we can process at any given time, but there is so much out there. It’s overwhelming, especially when we start considering the intersectional and intertwined nature of most of the violence that permeates this world. There is too much that is cruel and toxic, and it sometimes feels like we are all drowning in a tsunami of wrongness.

I check the news every day and am repulsed by the indifference, the flippancy, with which some people react to mass death. I am exhausted by fights on social media that sometimes feel more performative than substantial. I sometimes don’t know which terrible news development, in which country, to focus on. The horrors of the world mix in with the stressors and pressures in my personal life, until I am confused by the object of my grief and the cause of my frustration. 

There are days when my body is too exhausted to carry the weight of my heart. There are days when I wonder if the choices I’ve made have led me to live a very tiring life. But there’s a part of me that has, over a lifetime of guilt about procrastination and ‘being lazy’, internalised an assumption that life should be tiring and difficult in some way, and that being able to take stretches of time off means that I’m getting complacent or slacking off. It’s only now, in my mid-30s, that I’ve started to wonder if perhaps life doesn’t need to be lived this way; perhaps there is nothing wrong with feeling at ease. 

The 躺平 tǎng píng movement emerged in China in resistance against a high-pressure, rat race culture; young people just had enough and decided “fuck it”. I definitely see the allure, and it also occurs to me that perhaps, in many cases, what we think of as ‘giving up’ and tǎng píng is just… life lived at a reasonable pace, stripped off the unreasonable expectations we’ve learnt to impose upon ourselves.

After I write this piece—itself an activity unrelated to my job or any civil society obligation—I’m going to lie in bed and read a novel. After a little while I might decide to watch another episode or two of Exclusive Fairytale, just so I can giggle at cuteness for a bit. It’s true that there are other more ‘productive’ things that I could be doing. But I am trying to unlearn the tendency to think in this way about everything that isn’t work-related. What I’m doing right now, what I’m going to do after this—it is not procrastination. It is rest, and I need it. The rest of the world will be there tomorrow.