The Plague of Procrastination

 Nike's slogan "just do it" is applicable to life story writing and preserving your memories.

One of the first things I ever had published was an essay in defense of procrastination. It was somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but then, as now, I do find a certain allure to “productive procrastination”—that is, I often put things off because an idea is still germinating, and needs time. Many of my creative endeavors are enriched by time spent doing other things; I often sort out editorial structure while exercising, or brainstorm and troubleshoot while running mindless errands. Maybe “procrastination” isn’t really the right word for that, after all.

True procrastination, however—undesired delay—is too often self-defeating.

Recent studies have indicated that procrastination is not simply a matter of poor time management, but that there is a clear emotional element to our tendency to put things off. “You know what you ought to do and you’re not able to bring yourself to do it. It’s that gap between intention and action,” says Timothy Pychyl of Carleton University, in Canada.

Lately I have been faced with a rash of such procrastination among friends and potential clients. I am not talking about leaving a sink full of dishes for tomorrow, but rather a box full of photos and a head full of questions for…well, for “someday.”

It’s one thing to be self-defeating by putting off homework or exercise. It’s another to ignore big things that we know hold tremendous meaning.

From “Must Do” to Forgotten Task

When people learn what I do for a living, their eyes light up, and so often they recite a list of people whose stories they wish to preserve:

“I am visiting with my entire extended family next month and I absolutely should capture their stories.”
“My father is in the hospital with signs of early dementia, but he still has days of clarity. His stories of growing up in Prague are so precious—I must do something to preserve them soon!”
“My son adores sitting with his grandmother listening to her tales of childhood in Brooklyn! I hope he remembers them when he gets older!”
“My dad was in the Secret Service during my entire childhood. He is retired now, and sometimes I overhear him telling incredible stories to his cronies. I wonder if he would share them with me?”

Every one of these statements, while not quoted verbatim, is from actual conversations I have had in the past few months.

And every one of these individuals continues to find ways to put off gathering stories from their loved ones.

Why Wait?

While on a professional level I of course would love for these individuals to hire me to help preserve their stories in an heirloom book, on a personal level it saddens me that their procrastination just may result in a loss of family stories. Photographs will become mysteries for the next generation to solve. Memories will be lost to time. Their undocumented family history will become a genealogical puzzle.

If no one cared about these stories and memories, none of this would matter. But they not only care, they care deeply. I hear it in their voices when they are talking to me; I know it from my own experience.

Ignoring your instinct to preserve your family stories can be an expensive trade-off. And most of us know this. So we do we wait?

  • Studies show that we are most likely to procrastinate when we are unsure how to proceed—and that is often the case with “big” preservation projects.
  • Moreover, we tend to jump more quickly on tasks that provide instant gratification—and most of our storytelling efforts take time.
  • Lastly, when our perceived value of the task is high (how fun, how meaningful?), we are more likely to do it.

I am here to help you figure out how to proceed—so there is no worry (and no excuse!) in saying “yes” to starting today. And what could be of greater value than preserving your stories—your wisdom, your experiences, your adventures—for the next generation?

Knowing those two things, please don’t let the draw of instant gratification keep you from beginning. Some things in life are worth the wait, and preserving your memories, meaningfully and beautifully, is certainly one of them.

As the motivational wizards at Nike say: “Just do it.”

Related Reading:

  • While there are lots of lists of family history questions on the web, here are 3 places to find unexpected questions that lead to meaningful life story writing.
  • Meet Josh: He plans to write his biography someday. Yet he has told his adult kids none of his life stories. How about you—are you waiting for “someday,” too?
  • No one will tell your life stories but you. Start small by saving family photos & preserving stories so you create a lasting, meaningful legacy, one step at a time.