Procrastination, Identity and Hamlet the Dane

We are all plagued procrastination at times. And the causes are well documented. As humans we are naturally drawn to novelty; new and interesting activities and objects stimulate our pleasure centers, whereas routine and mundane tasks have the opposite effect.

We can also put off tasks that might trigger anxiety, like a mid-term paper or a quarterly report, to the very last minute, claiming that we "work better under pressure." This is merely a defensive tactic to justify our behavior. In reality, performing tasks in the eleventh hour narrows our choices. They become "do it now or fail." Thus the anxiety is reduced in a real way when there are no choices left. But what there is another, less obvious reason?

When I think about procrastination, I tend to think about what other emotions or mental states might be keeping one from doing the task at hand. And then I think of Shakespeare's HAMLET

Anyone who has read or seen a production of HAMLET is struck by just how long it takes Hamlet to avenge his father's murder. In a series of soliloquies, Hamlet finds myriad excuses, multiple rationalizations and convincing arguments as to why he hasn't gotten off of his butt and just DONE the thing already. He even had his father's ghost show up, not once but twice to ask the same thing.

When Hamlet does take his revenge against Claudius, it is a brutal and bloody affair and no one, save for Hamlet's' friend Horatio, is left alive. Hamlet himself has perished at the end of a poisoned sword. Everyone is dead. Not exactly the outcome that Hamlet had in mind in Act I when he revealed his ingenious and elaborate plot (pretending to be crazy )to his friends.

What kept Hamlet from taking action? Ignoring for the moment the tomes of scholarly writing on this, we can see several dilemmas for Hamlet: he is very sad about his father's death, very irritated at his mother's hasty marriage to his uncle, whom he detests, his love life is a non-starter and then he starts seeing his father's ghost who bids him take revenge. But what if the ghost is just a manifestation of Hamlet's grief? What if he's wrong about his uncle? Murdering a king would be very bad, to say the least. And Hamlet is a noble prince; he identifies as a noble prince and scholar, not a vengeful, violent son. So he sets about for proof…

Just like Hamlet, chronic procrastinators may be sad, angry or depressed about aspects of their lives. These mood states interfere with concentration and focus. Additionally, some people may in fact suffer from an attentional problem, like ADHD and find it nearly impossible to start and stay on task.

And some, like Hamlet, may not want to be associated with the task at hand. For Hamlet to kill Claudius without real proof could condemn him to hell; he would forever be remembered as committing regicide (which for Elizabethan society was a grave offense). He does not want to identify as a murderer.

Possibly when we put off certain tasks we also do not wish to be associated with what those tasks might imply: a conventional, routine unexciting life; to be identified as the sort of people who would prioritize such routine matters. We want to experience life as imaginative, creative, spontaneous, cool people, not folks hung up on getting the laundry done.

So perhaps a possible solution to the endless procrastination that we experience would include an examination of just how we identify ourselves. If we feel that our vibrant and spontaneous identity would be ruined by a commitment to begin and finish those tasks that do not excite us, or cause anxiety in us, think of it this. Hamlet would up being a far worse murderer... the thing he resisted becoming the end because he delayed the main task at hand. We, too, could be consigning ourselves to a life of playing catch up on all those boring but important tasks and ultimately missing out on life. Just a thought.....