Monthly Archives: January 2014

Procrastination: Push-Pull, Ebb-Flow, Up-Down, In-Out

In Defense of Procrastination WaltersI always feel as though I’m being drawn in two directions when I am in a procrastination mode. It’s not that I don’t want to do what I am supposed to be doing. No. In fact, I am quite attracted by the idea of completing whatever task lies before me. The prospect is delicious.

Of course, I am also tempted by the notion of not getting the task done, of avoiding what I am supposed to do, and this alternative, too, attracts me like a moth into a flame. This prospect is not delicious: it is frightening.

What both options share, of course, is time: specifically, the time I spend indulging in imagining myself either finishing or not finishing what I should be working on. When there is no time, I do not procrastinate. The problem with being a writer is that there is often no one waiting for the finished product: no deadline. So I finally make space in my otherwise too-busy life to write, and then I don’t. Instead I fantasize about the joy that will come my way should I ever get around to actually working, and freak at the prospect of what will happen if I don’t.

Fast, Slow

Interestingly, two articles I’ve read on the subject of time management and procrastination in the past two days have presented two almost completely opposite perspectives on the merits of my behaviour. One suggests that if I want to improve my work (my writing, in this case), I need to force deadlines into my writing life just like the ones that exist in the rest of my life. I need to put pressure on myself that will leave me no time for procrastination.

The other says that if I don’t take my time — wallow, drag my feet, as my inclination urges me to do — my writing is going to suffer.

The action-oriented article, from The Daily Beast, is an excerpt from a book called Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz, psychologists. It starts by describing the outcome of an intriguing experiment carried out by a ceramics teacher: it indicates that by doing a lot of things quickly and not worrying about whether the outcome is going to be good or bad, you may create a better product than if you spend all your time trying to make one good product.

The excerpt includes a quote from Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, who says:

My strategy has always been: Be wrong as fast as we can. Which basically means, we’re gonna screw up, let’s just admit that. Let’s not be afraid of that. But let’s do it as fast as we can so we can get to the answer. You can’t get to adulthood before you go through puberty. I won’t get it right the first time, but I will get it wrong really soon, really quickly.

In my case anyway, most of my procrastination time is based on the principle that I’m only going to create one good thing (an article, let us say), which I will write and revise until it is as perfect as I can make it. My procrastination does not encompass a strategy that would see me go headlong into the hurly burly, tossing out a bunch of articles until one hits a mark somewhere and sticks.

By contrast, David Whyte believes that procrastination does to ideas what putting fruit in a paper bag does to bananas and apples and pears: it helps with the ripening process and makes the flavours sweet and full.

Whyte says:

An endeavor achieved without delay, wrong turnings, occasional blank walls and a vein of self-doubt running through all, leading eventually to some degree of heart-break, is a thing of the moment, a mere bagatelle, and often neither use nor ornament. It will be scanned for a moment and put aside. What is worthwhile carries the struggle of the maker written within it, but wrought into the shape of an earned understanding.

Some days and with some tasks I agree with Babineaux and Krumboltz, and some days and on some tasks with David Whyte. Thanks to the former I wrote this blog post. In sympathy with the latter, I haven’t written any fiction this afternoon.

My only concern is that fruit left too long in the bag inevitably goes bad.


Are Resolutions a Procrastination Strategy?

Rewards without the sacrifice. What could be better than that?


Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 11.47.48 AMWhen I was working on my CBC Ideas program In Defense of Procrastination (yes. That’s also the title of my forthcoming book), one of the most enjoyable interviews I did was with psychology professor Dr. Timothy Pychyl, who heads the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa and is the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. He’s a genuinely interesting and very funny person. I will be referring often to him both in this blog and in my book.

I was happy to read that Dr. Pychyl is now investigating the relationship between procrastination and resolution-making. In a recent article in the Hamilton Spectator, Pychyl pointed out that humans tend to see the future as “a true blank slate.” I know from personal experience (repeated personal experience) that this way of looking at the future is a slippery slope.

By allowing ourselves to put off acting on our (very worthwhile) decisions to make new beginnings, we get a double-whammy bonus: 1) we get to feel great about ourselves, and 2) we don’t yet have to start the hard work associated with the resolution itself. As Pychyl points out in his example, we can pat ourselves on the back because we are going to go on a diet, without actually having to go on the diet… yet. To put it another way, we can easily overestimate our ability to achieve in the abstract: the ongoing drudgery of changing a habit makes reality far more challenging.

So, if procrastinating brings us the kind of immediate rewards (e.g., permission to indulge in our less-than-productive activities while also feeling good about ourselves) that we probably won’t get for a long time if we actually try to change our lives, maybe we simply need to keep rescheduling our resolutions instead of trying to act on them. 😉

Your thoughts?