In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the meaning of a famous proverb – and its origins in a work of literature
‘Procrastination is the thief of time’. It’s perhaps one of the best-known proverbs in the English language, and as with most proverbs, the temptation is to ascribe it to that prolific author, ‘Anon.’ But as with another favourite axiom, ‘better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all’, ‘procrastination is the thief of time’ appears to have a very decisive origin in the work of a particular writer.
But which writer? William Shakespeare? Charles Dickens? Alexander Pope?
Well, first, it’s worth just clearing up exactly what the expression means. ‘Procrastination’, or putting something off, is the ‘thief of time’ because you end up wasting time by putting things off. But even here it’s worth pointing out the cleverness of the axiom, in that it potentially embraces two meanings. One is that you waste time when you could have been accomplishing what you need to achieve. The other, though, is that all procrastination is time-wasting.
Or, to put it another way, if I have an exam to revise for and procrastinate, saying I’ll do it later, I’m unlikely to go and learn to play the violin or teach myself German while I’m putting off the exam revision. I’ll sit and watch Netflix (or I would if I weren’t seemingly the only person in the country who doesn’t have it), play video games (again, I would if I owned any), or I’ll browse social media (now that one I am guilty of). So procrastination is the thief of time because if we put off something we should be doing we never spend that time doing something else that’s useful or productive in any way.
In other words, I don’t think that ‘procrastination is the thief of time’ is merely synonymous with, say, ‘strike while the iron’s hot’ or ‘he who hesitates is lost’. Its emphasis on procrastination deepens the meaning of the proverb.
So, now we’ve established the meaning of this famous piece of proverbial wisdom, who should actually get the credit for coming up with it?
Dickens sometimes gets the credit, but wrongly. At most, Dickens merely popularised ‘procrastination is the thief of time’ when he put that proverb into the mouth of Mr Micawber in his 1850 novel David Copperfield:
‘I say,’ returned Mr. Micawber, quite forgetting himself, and smiling again, ‘the miserable wretch you behold. My advice is, never do tomorrow what you can do today. Procrastination is the thief of time. Collar him!’
But Mr Micawber, one of the most celebrated and quoted characters from Dickens’s most autobiographical novel, was hardly being original when he pronounced that ‘procrastination is the thief of time’. Nor, incidentally, was he original when he opined – more famously still – that ‘accidents will occur in the best-regulated families’: that quotation originated (with ‘happen’ in place of ‘occur’) in an 1819 book by ‘P. Atall’ called Hermit in America. But that’s a quotation for another article …
So, if not Dickens (or Mr Micawber), who originated ‘procrastination is the thief of time’ as a phrase?
We have to go back to the eighteenth century, a whole century before Dickens, to find the origins of ‘procrastination is the thief of time’, in the poem Night-Thoughts by Edward Young (1683-1765). The poem was published in 1742.
A hugely popular poem in its day, The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality (to give it its full title) by Edward Young is a long blank-verse meditation on death, set over the course of nine sections or ‘nights’.
In some ways, the poem acts as a bridge between the Augustan neoclassicism of Young’s contemporaries like Pope and Johnson, and the later meditative poetry – which was often written in blank verse – by Romantics like Wordsworth and Coleridge.
In the first part of Night-Thoughts, we find the following axiomatic passage:
Be wise to-day; ’tis madness to defer;
Next day the fatal precedent will plead;
Thus on, till wisdom is pushed out of life.
Procrastination is the thief of time;
Year after year it steals, till all are fled,
And to the mercies of a moment leaves
The vast concerns of an eternal scene.
As the context of Young’s use of the phrase makes clear, ‘Procrastination is the thief of time’ is not just a caution against ‘defer[ring]’ or putting things off: Young also suggests that time spent procrastinating from doing one thing is time wasted, not doing something else, but doing nothing of any consequence.
We may feel as though we have achieved something when, in order to delay filling out our tax returns, we tidy up the house or clean the kitchen, but the fact remains that what we should be doing is far more important.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.