Category Archives: Procrastination

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.

Getting Started (well, sort of…)

In Defense of Procrastination Walters

I.

Have you ever:

  • neglected to thank someone for a gift or act of kindness for so long that you feared running into that person by accident?
  • felt simultaneously ashamed, enraged and mystified at your inability to get to work on an assignment with a deadline?
  • promised yourself a hundred different times that you would start (or stop) doing something the very next day, without ever actually starting (or stopping) it?

If you can relate to these kinds of experiences, well…. Welcome to the human race.

I’ve met very few people who are not bothered from time to time — some more frequently than others — by their inclination to procrastinate. I myself have reached the point on several occasions when I semi-seriously weighed the alternatives of admitting that I had not yet written an article I had promised to someone and throwing myself off the nearest bridge. It was, in fact, during an episode like that I first conceived the idea of writing about procrastination. I knew even then that I was not the only person in the world who suffered from it, but it was not until I began to do some research that I discovered how widespread the problem actually is.

The original focus of my exploration of the subject of procrastination was the development of a one-hour program for CBC’s long-running and excellent documentary radio series, Ideas. What I wanted to investigate was this: If so many people experience procrastination, fight it, try to live with it, find they cannot avoid it – if it is, in short, perhaps, a human inclination, something that has perhaps even evolved in us – can it be entirely bad? Might there not be a good side… even, perhaps, some benefits?

The Ideas program was several months in the making, and during that time almost everyone to whom I mentioned the project, which I had confidently named “In Defense of Procrastination” from the start, seemed eager to hear the program; a surprising number even volunteered to contribute to it. Everyone seemed to relate to problems with procrastination. They loved the idea that there might be some justification – better yet, more than one – that might help them live with themselves as procrastinators. They greeted with even more enthusiasm the prospect of acquiring solid arguments that might help them to defend themselves from the range of reactions (ranging from disapproval to rage) of the people with whom they lived and worked.

They were also, of course, keen to learn how to avoid ever getting themselves in a situation where they’d procrastinate again.

In addition to getting them into trouble with other people – or at least making them fearful that they would – their tendency to procrastinate evoked feelings in them, as it does in me and probably you as well, of guilt and pain. It made them feel as though they were lazy.

Granted, Thomas De Quincey said:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. (“On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” 1827)

But surely this was written tongue-in-cheek? It is not human nature, at least under normal, peaceable circumstances, to commit murder, or to steal. It is, in my experience, human nature to procrastinate.

(to be continued. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and responses.)