Great Procrastinators in History: Malia and Sasha Obama Not Among Them

Obama says Malia and Sasha don’t put off their work. From Clinton to Kafka, see history’s big procrastinators.

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1. Congressional Republicans vs. Malia and Sasha

President Obama scolded Congressional Republicans for putting off a budget deal in his press conference on Wednesday. "Malia and Sasha generally finish their homework a day ahead of time. Malia's 13, Sasha's 10. It is impressive. They don't wait until the night before, they're not pulling all-nighters,” Obama said (technically Malia turns 13 on July 4). But many great minds put off their work until the last minute. From Bill Clinton to Leonardo da Vinci, click through to see history’s biggest procrastinators.

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2. Bill Clinton

The then-president was called a “chronic procrastinator” by Time magazine in 1994. Vice President Al Gore said Clinton was "punctually challenged"  and even his wife Hilary conceded that “it’s maddening to try to keep him on any kind of schedule.”

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3. Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka often complained that he had no time to write. But when he was promoted to chief clerk at Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute with reduced hours, what then? The dark, metaphysically surreal novelist’s biographer Louis Begley chronicled the rest of his day: Lunch at 3:30, nap until 7:30, exercise, and then dinner with the family. He would only start writing at around 11 in the evening, "depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o'clock, once even till six in the morning."

Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne

4. St. Augustine of Hippo

In the latter days of the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo—not yet a saint—was living with a woman he wasn’t married to when his mother persuaded him to enter an arranged marriage—an engagement that he broke off anyway. During this time he offered his prayer, “Grant me chastity and continence—but not yet,” which has become a motto of sorts for procrastinators. Augustine has come to be known as the patron saint of procrastinators, and he certainly succeeded in putting off overcoming his physical and mental temptations for some years.

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George McClellan

It may cause you some discomfort to entertain the thought that the Civil War might have been clipped short if not for the procrastination of Gen. George McClellan, who meticulously prepared the Union army. “If he can’t fight himself, he excels in making others ready to fight,” Lincoln said. Turns out, he couldn’t fight. In 1862, he hesitated and missed a great opportunity to capture Richmond from Robert E. Lee’s men, convinced that the Confederates were blocking him. In the same year, he dillydallied both before and after the battle of Antietam, squandering a two-to-one advantage over Lee. Another Union General-in-Chief Henry Halleck wrote, “There is an immobility here that exceeds all that any man can conceive of. It requires the lever of Archimedes to move this inert mass.”

6. Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci took 16 years to finish painting Mona Lisa. He left both The Adoration of the Magi and Jerome in the Wilderness unfinished. The version of the Virgin of the Rocks in the National Gallery in London took 13 years to complete. The Last Supper was only finished after his patron Duke Ludovico Sforza threatened to cut off funds, and it still took three years. Though he was surely exaggerating, he later claimed to have regretted “never having completed a single work.” At the time of his death, he left numerous sketches for unfinished projects in his codices.

Heinzelmann / Landov

7. Walter Benjamin

The German literary critic once wrote to his friend and fellow philosopher Gershom Scholem that “procrastination … is second nature to me in the most important situations of my life.” Indeed, he never finished his Passagenwerk or The Arcades Project. Yet as a Jew in Germany witnessing the rise of Hitler, his procrastination was perhaps a tactic to put off the gradual constraints on his freedom and what must have seemed to him the inescapable extinction of his people. In the end he’s believed to have committed suicide at the French-Spanish border while running from the Nazis. But the next day his fellow travelers were allowed passage to safety in Lisbon. If only he had kept to his nature and waited—a tragedy of irony if there ever was one.

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8. Ralph Ellison

“Whom the gods wish to destroy,” the critic Cyril Connolly said, “they first call promising.” In 1952, Ralph Ellison published his debut novel, Invisible Man, a modernist, integrationist masterpiece. He then worked on what was supposed to be his “symphonic” second novel until his death, in 1994. He never published a word of it, though he left behind more than 2,000 pages of manuscripts and notes, released posthumously, in 1999, as Juneteenth, a whittled down 400-pager, and in 2010 as the 1136-page-strong Three Days Before the Shooting.

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9. Truman Capote

What’s the difference between procrastination and writer’s block? Truman Capote’s case is similar to Ralph Ellison’s, though he’d already had a few books under his belt when In Cold Blood was released in 1966 to acclaim. He had great plans for what he had hoped to be his masterwork, Answered Prayers, but he missed deadlines for years. Capote would have been paid $1 million if he had submitted by March 1, 1981. He never did, although four chapters were published in Esquire magazine. He died in 1984. “Either I’m going to kill it, or it’s going to kill me,” he said. Many writers have succumbed similarly, whether you call it writer’s block or not: Coleridge, Melville, Capote’s friend Harper Lee, Salinger, Dashiell Hammett, Henry Roth, and the beloved New Yorker reporter Joseph Mitchell.

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10. George Akerlof

In a 1991 paper titled “Procrastination and Obedience,”  economist George Akerlof, who would win a Nobel Prize in 2001, recounted his difficulty with a simple errand—mailing a box to his friend (and fellow future Nobel laureate) Joseph Stiglitz. Akerlof, a key figure in behavioral economics, came to apply his actions in economic terms that had applications in savings habit, substance abuse and bureaucratic organizations. “Procrastination provides the simplest example of a situation in which there are repeated errors of judgment due to unwarranted salience of some costs and benefits relative to others,” he wrote. “In this case each error of judgment causes a small loss, but these errors cumulatively result in large losses over time and ultimately cause considerable regret on the part of the decision maker.” In other words, don’t do it.

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11. Hamlet

“To be or not to be, that is the question,” Hamlet said to himself. Sometimes you just want to tell the Prince of Denmark to stop asking and just kill Uncle Claudius already. The guy basically puts off taking action for most of the play, and in the end pretty much everyone either dies or goes mad. Such are the perils of chronic hesitancy and constant double-guessing.

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12. Douglas Adams

The British writer Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once said that he loved deadlines: “I like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.” He would need editors to lock him in a room and wait outside as he finished his pieces. He avoided writing his novel The Salmon of Doubt and would soak for hours in a bathtub instead. He had worked on the book for a decade and still didn’t have a complete first draft when he died of a heart attack in 2001.

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13. Hunter S. Thompson

The author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas wrote late at night, after days of taking drugs and blowing things up, procrastinating on a story for Rolling Stone magazine about the death of Mexican-American journalist Rubén Salazar. In fact, the wild exuberance of Thompson’s particular grand of gonzo journalism began as an act of procrastination. In 1970, Thompson was sent by Scanlan’s Monthly to cover the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. He blew the deadline. With a courier waiting at the hotel door for him and without a coherent story, he began ripping pages of verbatim notes from his notepad and sending them off to the waiting press. He thought his career was over. It won rave reviews.

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14. Gerhard Richter

“I have always been structured,” the German artist once told The New York Times Magazine.  “What has changed is the proportions. Now it is eight hours of paperwork and one of painting.” The many faces of Richter’s own works reflect this variable aspect of contemporary life. “I go to the studio every day, but I don't paint every day. I love playing with my architectural models. I love making plans. I could spend my life arranging things. Weeks go by, and I don't paint until finally I can't stand it any longer.”

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15. Kingsley Amis

The prolific British writer’s 20 novels and six volumes of poetry apparently didn’t come easy. He once told The Paris Review: “I don’t get up very early. I linger over breakfast reading the papers, telling myself hypocritically that I’ve got to keep with what’s going on, but really staving off the dreadful time when I have to go to the typewriter … The agreement I have with myself is that I can stop whenever I like and go and shave and so on … Then I emerge, and nicotine and alcohol are produced … And later on, with luck, a cup of tea turns up, and then it’s only a question of drinking more cups of tea until the bar opens at six o’clock.” If he was able to get going, Amis said he hated stopping, fully aware of his procrastinating future. “It’s not a question of being carried away by one’s creative afflatus, but saying, ‘Oh dear, next time I do this I shall be feeling tense again.’”

Alexander Gardner / AP Photo

16. Abraham Lincoln

Perhaps the most famous accusation of procrastination is that Abraham Lincoln scribbled the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope or napkin on the train into town. This, it turns out, is apocryphal, thanks to the anonymous reporter of an article that appeared in The New York Times on February 12, 1909, claiming that Lincoln’s assistant John Hay told him that the president tore up two sheets of notes and substituted a set of “revisions he had made on the train.” What Hay probably meant was that Lincoln tore up his notes while he was on the train leaving Gettysburg, after the speech. Anyway, there exists several early drafts of the speech, and the crux of the dedication of the battlefield was Lincoln’s little reminder to himself, “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” The great man had a lot of work to do, and, after all, he was the one who once said, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”