Writer’s procrastination − a hidden virtue?

“As an academic, procrastination is practically a job requirement. If I were to say I would be submitting an academic paper by September 1, and I submitted it in August, people would question my character.”

Frank Partnoy interviewed by Megan Gambino (The Smithsonian)

 

Discovering Frank Partnoy’s refreshing stance on procrastination was a happy blogging accident.

I had just visited the blogs of two fellow ‘WordPress Blogging 101’ delegates as part of our daily assignment. Each of them had written posts that expressed somewhat differing takes on procrastination − but both of which celebrated it rather than condemning it.

The first blog belongs to Janet Sunderland and the post is titled Levelling chaos to a manageable level It’s about purposefully and unashamedly doing the jobs like managing your emails in order to clear space so that the writing work can start happening.

The second blog, from the sticks to the bricks and back again, has an ABOUT page that begins: ‘I’m a writer who doesn’t write. My life is a case study in procrastination’. It’s a funny profile, although obviously not true because my fellow-blogger has many interesting pieces of writing on her site. But the writer at sticks to the bricks is delightfully resistant to the idea that she should feel at all guilty about not writing enough − in fact she shouts out and celebrates it!

Yellow Rose that procrastinated a little and took its time flowering, only appearing at the end of September

Yellow Rose that procrastinated a little and took its time flowering, only appearing at the end of September

Reading these two posts made me ponder. My common response to my own procrastination about writing is guilt, panic, even despair. I jest not. It’s so easy to lose my ‘writing’ step in the desperate daily dance through the loose scraps of paper on the top of my desk. I often fail to achieve any progress with the main work, the essential stuff, lying beneath, and I berate myself for this. But have I got it wrong? If I refer to it as something else (like Janet’s ‘levelling of chaos’) would procrastination by another name smell a little sweeter?

I strongly suspected that five minutes procrastinatory googling was what was needed to settle this discomforting question.

Well, OK, it was more like fifteen minutes in the end.

But if I hadn’t started roaming around up in the ether I wouldn’t have bumped into Frank Partnoy. He has written a book called Wait: The Art of Science and Delay. Don’t you think the first word of that book title is calming in itself? It suggests pausing, breathing, thinking. Maybe allowing oneself to catch up?

Here he is again talking about the P-word:

“Procrastination is just a universal state of being for humans. We will always have more things to do than we can possibly do, so we will always be imposing some sort of unwarranted delay on some tasks.”

“The question is not whether we are procrastinating; it is whether we are procrastinating well.”

Procrastinate WELL? How do you do that?

I read on with my heart in my mouth, a cliché which I use on purpose here as it turns out that procrastination, according to Mr Partnoy, is actually a bit like cholesterol. There’s ‘good’ procrastination (which he calls ‘active’) and ‘bad’ procrastination (which he labels ‘passive’ and which I suspect includes watching several episodes of Come Dine With Me back to back) and the trick is to have more of the good variety in your life than the bad. I think the idea is that ‘active procrastination’ allows longer for the ideas that go into our writing to ‘stew’ and deepen in flavour.

It sounds a bit like learning to cook on the Aga we inherited with this old house three years ago − it’s been a cooking epiphany for me. It’s such a chilled way of warming food up, involving a graceful and drawn out choreography as you move pots of food around between the eternally hot ovens which each have a different but steady, reliable temperature. There’s no sense of urgency because the chicken can sit in the very low oven for an age whilst you wait for the veggies and the gravy to catch up. Or have a few glasses of wine. Or a bath. Do you know, I think I’m beginning to get what Mr Partnoy means. He goes on:

“If we are going to resolve long-term issues like climate change and sustainability … I think we need a shift in mindset away from snap reactions toward delay. Innovation goes at a glacial pace and should go at a glacial pace.”

So he’s not giving us a 007-style ‘License to Kill Time’ here − he’s just saying why putting things off can sometimes be the best course of action.

Boulder procrastinating

A boulder enjoying the view whilst it procrastinates about its next move. From the boulder’s perspective the next ice age may be a rapidly approaching deadline.

Another believer in the art of ‘leaving things until later’ (now doesn’t that sound better than procrastination?) is Liz Earle McLeod in this article from the Huffington Post. In fact, she makes procrastinators sound attractively courageous and cavalier. She talks about the positive consequences of daring to leave things until the very, very last minute in order to induce a knife-edge-style creative burst:

“T.S. Eliot once said, “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” We tend to think that we need to be in a zen state to get creative. Wrong. When you have to get it done RIGHT NOW, you get super creative, super fast. You ignore your inner critic because you don’t have the time to listen to her. When anxiety kicks in it blows the doors off your preconceived ideas, which opens the space for creativity to take over.”

I know this is true. The adrenalin-rush of a deadline is like a high-energy drink of unbelievable potency. It makes you fling all your carefully thought out story threads and slowly considered fragments of research together with reckless abandon in one deafening crash. And oddly this toddler-tantrum approach often results in something on the page that is suddenly and mysteriously complete, inexplicably shining up at you, seemingly made from the air by the fairies because you cannot believe that it came out of your poor, muddled human brain.

Where does all this leave me? Well, I’ve decided to do three things in order to stop being so scared of procrastination − because I think the fear of it puts me out of action almost as much as actually doing it.

  1. Be kind to myself. At times it is unavoidable that the tumultuous ocean of tasks will pull me under.
  2. Be sensible. Sometimes those jobs on the ‘to do’ list really ARE as important as writing. If I don’t do my budgeting and therefore end up paying a bank charge for going overdrawn then I have just given away a precious hour or so of the writing time I work so hard to earn.
  3. Be gentle. I will continue to drink the virtual ‘energy drink’ of the imminent deadline, but only in small gulps – it’s a very heady brew. It should be alternated with nights of quietly going to bed at ten o’clock with a cup of Horlicks.

I am going to take a deep breath and allow myself to play the procrastination game more positively. But it won’t work unless I’m vigilant; I must be certain that I’m only involving myself in Partnoy’s active procrastination, doing ‘important’ things, not the things that are merely ‘urgent’ to someone other than me.

So if I’m not writing, I want to be doing things that lift a distracting load of non-writing-related anxiety from my shoulders and leave me clear-minded and ready to write.

Things that ‘buy’ me some dedicated writing time later.

Things that nourish me.

Things that benefit those I love.

 

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5 thoughts on “Writer’s procrastination − a hidden virtue?

  1. Louise,

    I am quite honored to be mentioned in your post on procrastination along with Janet Sunderland. I am going to have to check out Frank Partnoy’s book. I’ve always joked that I’d write a book about procrastination if I hadn’t put it off until tomorrow.

    I by the way, did some procrastinating aka googling and believe I have found an answer to your mystery. I’ve left a comment on that page as well.

    Thanks again for the mention,

    Lynne
    from the sticks to bricks and back again

    Like

  2. I love this! There are those who insist you have to sit in front of the blank screen if that’s all you can do, as long as you’re sticking to your writing ‘discipline’. Me, I like leaving it to George occasionally: throw what you’re writing into the mental washing machine, go for a swim/walk/burrow into trivia, and hope it emerges Omo bright (but not reeking of synthetic jasmine/citrus/violet or any other sickly horror found in washing powders).

    Like

    1. I’m really glad you enjoyed the post, Helen! I like the mental washing machine idea – I think I’ll put a ‘mental wash’ on right now – it’s gloriously sunny outside and the weeding is calling!

      Like

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