Nothing inspires procrastination like a blank page. Am I right, writers? We sit down at our keyboard or our journal or our clay tablet with a fierce intention to get right down to it, to pound out that chapter or scene or article or post. Fifteen minutes later, we’ve got part of a working title, some empty candy wrappers, a drained coffee cup, and not much else. We begin again.
Another half-hour later, we still don’t have any more words on the page. But we’ve answered our email, tidied up our Pinterest boards, retweeted an irresistible bon mot or two and de-crumbed our desk drawer. Still the cursor blinks, the page waits, the clay desiccates. We summon our resolve to plunge forward, right after we make some toast and check on the laundry.
The association between writing and procrastination is so well known that it has prompted its own terms. “Bakecrastination,” when entered into your search engine, produces a slew of tantalizing Instagram photos of goodies disgorged by the ovens of people who are supposed to be doing something else. There are many variations on the theme: Shopcrastination, Cookcrastination, and one that I fell victim to just this week, Cleancrastination. My latest short story has yet to get off the ground, but my floors sparkle.
There are those who are apologists for procrastination, who even trumpet its benefits. An October, 2015 article by Peter Economy (are we to believe that’s actually his name?) in Inc. titled Five Surprising Ways Procrastinating Brings You Success And Happiness, strikes me as dubiously buoyant. Mr. Economy (c’mon, really?) states, “according to researchers, procrastination has more than quadrupled over the past 30 years, with more than 26% of people admitting they are chronic procrastinators.” Economy moves on with blithe unconcern for who these researchers are or what their studies consisted of, so I will leave it to you to imagine how it was scientifically determined that not doing what you’re supposed to be doing at any given moment has increased fourfold since 1986, or what methods were used to extract confessions of habitual slacking from 26% of us.
Breezing right along, the article lists the Five Surprising Ways, which include:
- Becoming Invested In Things You Care About — meaning, instead of writing your term paper you’re doing something fun and therefore perhaps discovering your true purpose in life (how’d that work for you in college?)
- Building Relationships With Others (just think of all those deep and lasting connections you’re cultivating on Facebook while you’re not doing your tax return)
- Becoming More Well-Rounded — here the author waxes rhapsodic about the many interesting websites you might otherwise never have discovered were you not Internet-surfing in an attempt to avoid the task at hand, and we know nothing at all undesirable ever came of that
- Finishing Small Tasks First (see Cleancrastination, above); and
- Becoming More Efficient. This last, gushes the author, is inevitable because now that you’ve left yourself only 45 minutes to generate a ten-page report, your brain will be forced to work at top speed.
I don’t think so, Mr. Economy. Whether or not procrastination has any upside for people in other fields, I question it as a useful practice for writers. I’m not referring here to the non-writing pursuits that give our imaginations time to play and refresh themselves, or to creative daydreaming. I’m talking about flat-out avoidance, and we all know the difference.
A much more honest and useful perspective, in my never humble opinion, is Megan McCardle’s February, 2014 article in The Atlantic, Why Writers Are The Worst Procrastinators. Forthright about her own habit of putting off gettin’ ‘er done, writing-wise, McCardle uncovers the dark kernel at the heart of writers’ reluctance to simply write: “As long as you have not written that article, that speech, that novel, it could still be good.” She notes the many young journalists of her acquaintance that have jeopardized their careers by failing to turn in assignments on time: “ . . . it is not that they are lazy incompetents. Rather, they seem to be paralyzed by the prospect of writing something that isn’t very good.”
Allowing ourselves to knock out that first draft and get our thoughts on the page without fear of being bad or stupid or boring, is one of the keys to getting unstuck, to getting the juices flowing again. As writers, we know this. But it’s one of the hardest things to remember.
How do you fight your procrastination demons? And when you lose, what do you do instead?