The Art of Procrastination

6 Feb

squirrelI’m writing a book. I should have been done with the book six months ago. You should be reading it right now, proclaiming things like: “Wait, I spent money on this? Where are the boobs and robots? I was promised boobs and robots?” Don’t worry, you will get your boobs and robots. Some day.

Right now, I’m in the middle of doing final revisions to the boob and robot book. Or I am in the middle of not doing final revisions to the boob and robot book. The amount of time I actually spend writing/editing/revising or any other constructive/creative activity is quite low compared to things like: reading books, watching television, surfing the web, thinking about writing, talking to others about writing, pretending that other people are not bored with me talking about what I someday maybe soon I guess hopefully will you know perhaps on the off chance when I get some time and aren’t so tired from my damned job write someday. Also, playing video games.

One of the points of writing this blog, is that I publish once a week. Generally on Wednesdays. A few times I have pushed it to Thursdays, but only once did I actually skip a week. (I blamed this delay on Hurricane Sandy.)

I started this current post at 10:30 a.m. on Monday January 28, 2013. I planned on publishing it that Wednesday, but came up with something else to rant about. I figured a post about procrastination could be published anytime, or could molder in the Cloud, which is like the purgatory for unfinished thoughts and ideas.

To deal with procrastination I tend to Google things like “procrastination” or “procrastination help” or “what would Hemingway do” (I will never drink Pernod, sleep with a prostitute, and consume bull testicles on the same night again) or “kittens playing with cashmere sweater” or “porn.”  I read up on procrastination, and some apparently smart people tell me what I should be doing. Create habits, make lists, give yourself rewards, etc. It all sounds so wise, and you know what – it is. Habits, lists, and rewards work. And not just for some people, but for most people.

But I still somehow put off even making the list or starting the habit. I usually skip the tasks I need to accomplish and go straight for the reward (Pernod, hookers, bull testicles, opium at Gertie’s).  And when I do make up a list, I rarely cross off more than one or two items before I dispense with the list one way or another.

  • Make list.
  • Review list for accuracy.
  • Place list in back pocket of jeans.
  • Launder jeans.

People define procrastination in many different ways. I don’t see it as mere idle hedonism, wherein we simply do what we want. It is more depressing than that. Procrastination is freely, consciously, willingly, putting off a certain activity, with the knowledge that this delay will bring about negative consequences.

It is a choice we make. At least it is in the beginning. Soon, however, that choice morphs into routine. I go from not doing the dishes one night, to not doing the dishes three nights in row, to not even thinking about doing the dishes the next week, to shopping for clean plates the next month, to saying fuck it all and buying paper plates, which is really not the way to eat pork chops with creamed spinach.

Or take my inbox. How many emails do I have there, and how many of those should I simply delete without reading? And how often do I actually do that? There is no reason I shouldn’t go through those emails, file the ones I wish to keep and delete the crap.

But I don’t. I don’t go through them. I make a conscious choice to not do that. Those emails from Baseball Prospectus (pitchers and catchers in five days!!), eBay, Amazon, a variety of screenwriting websites (which I totally should unsubscribe from due to the fact that I’m not writing scripts anymore), online personals (which I totally should unsubscribe from due to CRAZY), five or six productivity sites (which I totally should unsubscribe from for, you know, meta), Groupon (which thinks I want either golf lessons or plastic surgery, two things I never expected to see coupons for), Film Forum (which I haven’t been to in a year).

Another example. I work at a law office, and one of the more grueling aspects of the law is billing. You have to account for every sliver of an hour. Some attorneys put their numbers in right away, others wait until the end of the month, having written down what they’ve done on slips of paper strewn throughout their office. Of course it would be so much easier for them to enter their time throughout the day then in one giant cram session at the end of the month. But they don’t. They substitute a few seconds of drudgery every so often for hours of it once a month. (I would like to note that if any of the attorneys I work for are reading this, I am not referring to you. You’re all excellent at your jobs and in fact make my life so much easier that I never wish to sell the book I was supposed to finish six months ago and make a lot of money and quit working for you angels, all of you angels.)

***

Have you ever taken note whenever you procrastinate and try to figure out your mindset. I have.

One trick I perform is convince myself that what I am doing is not actually procrastinating.  For instance, all those online sources I read give me insight into politics, contemporary society, culture, and which celebrities are on what drugs. I tell myself that this is enriching me, that reading The Atlantic makes me a better, more well-rounded human being. And it does. But one cannot live on blogs alone. My reading gives me ideas for my writing, but there has to be a point where I actually, you know, write. 

Another thing I do is tell myself that there is no point in writing. Take this piece for example. I can tell you exactly what went through my head before I began working on it today. In fact, what I thought right before writing this paragraph was: “I don’t have a through-line. There is no point to this. I’m just rambling. They’ll all see me for a fraud.” (Yeah, I know, dark.)

I can find a million excuses not to write: It sucks. No one will like it. No one will read it. I don’t like it. It makes no sense. It’s not insightful. It’s not even entertaining. I will never make a living doing this. I should just quit and go to law school and then quit that a drive a cab through the lonely streets of New York until a crazy person knifes me in the back.  (Yeah, I know, still dark.)

But there’s an ironic flipside to this.

I don’t lack confidence in my writing. I’ve gotten to a point where I know I’m a good writer. That, however, does not mean that everything I write is good. As a person becomes better at his craft, he also becomes a better self-critic. And that leads to realizing how much of it all is just crap, without beating himself up over the crappiness of it all. When I was younger I wrote far more than I do now. But when I read through that stuff now I am flabbergasted by the immature, lazy, self-centered, maudlin, sad sacky stuff I put down. But back then I didn’t know that my work was the stuff of the hopelessly romantic, naively idealistic, faux heartbroken, and generally stoned.

Back then I could not discern the good from the bad, and would continue working on revoltingly awful projects for weeks on end. Now I can take a deep breath and push the crap to the farthest back burner possible.

But this sense of self-awareness has a price (here’s your long-awaited ironic flipside):

I have become increasingly hesitant in my work. You might say I’ve refined my taste in my own work to such a point where I feel it pointless to tackle any project; the only possible end result is that it won’t live up to expectations. This might explain the phenomenon of Second Novel Syndrome, where the writer struggles to match the brilliance of their initial work.

I believe procrastination inherently comes down to this: the larger the project the more likely a person is to put it off. If I wish to lose twenty pounds, me not going to the gym today is not the biggest deal in the world; I can always go tomorrow. If I am writing a 500-page novel, me not writing today is not that big a deal; tomorrow. If I can complete something very soon, however, it is easier to start.  (Or, I could just say, well there’s only five dishes in the sink, it’s so easy I can do it anytime I want; like, I dunno, tomorrow maybe?)

There is only one cure to procrastination that has ever worked for me. Consciously telling myself that I will do something. While I like having some of my life fall into routine – exercise, housework – there are certain parts that I want to actually decide to do. Writing is a good example.

The worst philosophy is only doing something when you feel like doing it. “Oh, I’ll take the trash out when I feel like it.” There is only one time you will feel like taking the trash out – when the rats appear. No one ever wants to take the trash out. You have to lift up a bag full of filth, pull the draw strings, probably get a little cold creamed spinach on your hand, have a stink of cat poo or bad celery waft up at you. Then you have to hope none of it drips as you make your way to wherever you place your trash – for me it’s out my door, down a hall, to an elevator, then six floors down, where I will invariably meet some neighbors who are all: “Who did he kill and dismember and put the colon in this bag?”

I never want to take the trash out. Similarly, I rarely have an inclination to write. Oh, I come up with some magnificent ideas, but the actual writing process means I have to, you know, work. My ideas will always be there. I can write it some other time, preferably tomorrow.

But if I say to myself “I don’t want to do this right now, but I will,” the decision has once again become mine. I am no longer a slave to my lesser instincts of laziness, slovenly laziness, and corpulent laziness. The reward I get is a simple feeling that I’ve done good, that I have accomplished something. Even right now (8:36 a.m., Wednesday, February 6, 8.5 hours away from deadline), I feel good that I wrote before work, that I didn’t tell myself to leave it until my morning coffee, when I would say, maybe after lunch, and then oh look still got four hours, I can bang it out then. Ooh look, Thursday. If I publish tomorrow I can reward myself with Community.

So, was this article worth it? Did it have a through-line? A point? Was it just one long noisome ramble through the inner workings of a sad, spiteful, unpublished writer? Or did you…aw, look at that…

  

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