Thursday, July 24, 2014


The current issue of the New Yorker has a long and interesting article on procrastination. The writer seems to share the assumptions of Samuel Johnson, who in 1751 said (as quoted in the article):
"The folly of allowing ourselves to delay what we know cannot be finally escaped is one of the general weaknesses which, in spite of the instruction of moralists, and the remonstrances of reason, prevail to a greater or lesser degree in every mind; even they who most steadily withstand it find it, if not the most violent, the most pertinacious of their passions, always renewing its attacks, and, though often vanquished, never destroyed.” He concluded that it was “natural,” if not praiseworthy or desirable, “to have particular regard to the time present."
In the 18th century, man was at war with his nature. Hey, that's the Age of Enlightenment! It was all about the supremacy of mind, even though one's world and life play out in utter defiance of mind's earnest insistence. Damn it, I will finish this project tonight! And, yet, I find myself strangely drawn to this goblet of mead....

"Man plans and God laughs," says the Yiddish proverb. Your mental narrator states its intentions, and the universe (including you yourself) pays not the slightest attention. And yet the narrator considers itself omnipotent. It's like a particularly pompous boss who's the only one in the room oblivious to the fact that his plans always backfire.

We haven't learned much since 1751. We still hate ourselves for procrastinating because it reveals the truth about our mental pronouncements. If mind's all you recognize yourself to be, something like procrastination is an existential challenge.

Being naturally suspicious of my own mental narrative pronouncements, I have a very different view of procrastination. First, I recognize that I'm lots of different people. We're all lots of different people, but I take it to an extreme. When I play jazz trombone in a crowded nightclub, I'm not an Internet entrepreneur. When I'm hunting for restaurants, I'm not someone who struggles to make sense of human existence. When I'm practicing yoga, I'm not the guy who digs greedily into lasagna. I have friends who've never heard me discuss food. And I have friends who never hear me discuss anything else. I've had five careers, zillions of hobbies, and perpetually juggle several quests and projects. And I'm a different person in each situation. Shoot, I'm a different person when eating in an Ecuadorian restaurant than Malaysian.

It's not multiple personality syndrome; it's that I'm a chameleon. I like to blend into different scenes (it's how I compensate for growing up in soulless, culture-less suburbs). Also, I commit. So I ride it all the way.

But I don't jump between identities on a schedule. When I feel thoughtful, I write a Slog piece. When I feel tuneful, I go play music. When I crave, I go chowhounding. When I feel driven, I push ahead on projects (as a lifelong freelancer, this has always been feasible). Etc, etc.. In the words of Pete Seeger - and the Bible, which appears to have plagiarized him: "To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven." How strange that Samuel Johnson, a staunch Anglican, missed this pro tip!

If I try to play when I'm not feeling tuneful, I won't be at my best. Sometimes I must, and I step up when required, but, otherwise, I don't force it. I'm easy with myself. I let other selves prevail.

That's the essence of procrastination. It's the acknowledgement that you're not, in the current moment, the person for a given task. Even while flopped in front of the TV, I don't think about more "important" tasks, because my sloth-ish TV-viewing self deserves expression, too. No guilt's involved. A time to every purpose.

I suppose I've always appeared to be quite a slacker to most people around me. Yet I manage, somehow, to be unusually productive when all's said and done. I'm not sure how that happens, myself, but I'm convinced it's somehow tied up in this. When you don't force, it's all play, and play allows miracles - such as small children learning language and culture within just a few short years (while appearing to be inveterate slackers, themselves!).

My screw-ups best prove the point. Take a look at the previous Slog entry (it's super short). It's sort of blurry, right? I was making an interesting point, but conveyed it in a vague, foggy way. I wasn't really thinking about readers, I was more just jotting down what was in my head, without regard for how it would read. I was not, in other words, being a writer in that moment. And when writers write at moments when they're not writers, they often fail to write like writers. If I'd procrastinated a bit, it'd have been better! In fact, if more people procrastinated more often, there'd be far less mediocrity in the world. We need lots more procrastination, not less!

I have nearly 200 upcoming Slog pieces sitting in various states of construction. Some would be among my best work if I ever finished them. If I were being paid to do this, I'd bang them out, and be professional enough to ensure their competency. But they wouldn't be the best they could be. So each article awaits the arrival of the best possible person to finish it, and the backlog doesn't disturb me in the least.

Is my positive view on procrastination relevant only for freelancers and others who self-schedule? No. No one procrastinates when they can't. Procrastination is something that happens ahead of deadlines, not against them (people who miss deadlines are losers, not procrastinators). Procrastination only happens in situations where there's actually time to waste. But my point is that it's never a waste of time awaiting the right you for the job.

I've missed dinner to write this article. Plus, it's hot here, but I haven't budged from my seat to turn on the air conditioner. And I owe people emails! But writer me is in control, and that's something I honor (again, I commit). So: have I been procrastinating that other stuff? Of course not. There's a time to every purpose. I wrote, a couple of entries ago, about how
...there are so many things to eat, to do, and to enjoy. It takes way more mental energy to obsess over the absent than it does to simply immerse in what's at hand! That's why depressed people feel so worn out; it's tremendously sapping to create, perpetuate, and inhabit a fantasy world built upon What's Missing!
The same is true of weighing yourself down with the things you happen not to be doing in a given moment. Why do we humans find so many ways to obsess over what's not happening, when full immersion in whatever is happening is the source of all happiness and achievement?

No comments:

Blog Archive