I have, in theory, been working on this piece about How Not To Procrastinate for the past month.
I would have finished it earlier, but I wandered off to eat a sandwich and do some laundry that had been piling up for weeks, and then YouTube suddenly became very interesting, and then it was 3 a.m. and I had accomplished nothing.
But the struggle is what counts.
In my defense, I procrastinate only on really important things. I live by the John Perry-Robert Benchley theory of structured procrastination, which states that the most effective way of appearing to get a lot of things done is to always be procrastinating on one big project. “Anyone can do any amount of work,” said Benchley, “provided it is not the work that he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”
This has always worked for me. The trouble is that sometimes I need to finish an actually big project, and the only way of doing that is to commit myself to something even bigger. I am, for instance, working on a book. It has, comfortably, been the largest thing I have had to do for the whole year, and in consequence I have been able to write all kinds of other things. Plays. Screenplays. Graffiti. Unnecessarily thorough Yelp reviews. As the deadline crawls closer, I have been possessed by the creeping terror that in order to finish everything on time, I will have to agree to an even more gigantic commitment, by, say, adopting a small child. There is no other way. This is just how I have always lived.
(If my editor at Penguin is reading this, hello! What I meant to say was, “I finished all of it yesterday, only I have had a little trouble attaching the file and anticipate continuing to have this trouble for at least a month.”)
One of the most effective ways of procrastinating is by convincing yourself that what you are doing is not procrastinating, but working. “In order to be in a good mood to write,” I tell myself, “I have to have an iced coffee, and then I need to familiarize myself with Internet Culture, for work reasons and … reason reasons.”
As Burton Rascoe said, “What no wife of a writer ever understands is that a writer is working when he’s staring out the window.” Well, I am staring out the browser window. Facebook is work-related, after all. These days, everyone who writes on the Internet has to be a brand. I am a brand. A brand, loosely speaking, is someone who has become a hollow shell of a person and spends all her time linking to her articles online. Socializing is work, you tell yourself. “If I ‘like’ all these pictures of my friend’s babies, it reminds them that I am a human being, and that is good for my brand!”
Before the Internet, you had to put real work into procrastinating. Benchley had to subscribe to illustrated magazines so that he could look at pictures of Animals Doing Cute Things. But he still did it, because we procrastinators have our professional pride.
Being a procrastinator, like being late, is a sign of optimism. It is because you have confidence in your powers. “Most people would have to start this project weeks ago to do it well,” you tell yourself. “But not me, because I am Captain America.” Superheroes, you reflect, are always saving the day at the last minute. You never see the Avengers come to a burning building six hours before it gets set on fire to evacuate everyone in an orderly manner. No, they always show up just when it’s almost too late. That’s what makes it impressive.
I know Sheryl Sandberg claims that “done is better than perfect.” But “perfect” sounds way better to me. And until something is done, you don’t know for sure that it won’t be perfect. It could be!
The later it becomes, the more optimistic you become. “Well, I have to write 2,000 words tonight,” you tell yourself. “But I used to do that often during college. It will be easy as pie.” (The one time you made a pie, it looked like a raspberry sinkhole and everyone shied away from it, but it seems like the sort of thing that would be easy to do.) “First,” you think, “to inspire myself, I will watch a few choice clips on YouTube of Things That Movies Did Not Do Correctly.”
Six hours pass. It is now 1 a.m.
“That’s okay,” you tell yourself. “I really do my best writing late at night. So did Gertrude Stein, I think.”
You Google Gertrude Stein to see what her writing schedule was like. Another hour passes because you decide it is imperative to read all the reviews of “Midnight in Paris” and several think-pieces about Woody Allen’s morality. “A good writer is a good reader,” you remind yourself.
It is now 2 a.m. (“This is when Gertrude Stein really got on a roll, I bet.”) You open a blank document and stare at it. It seems as though you are forgetting something. You check all your e-mail. You check Twitter to see whether someone has noticed what you thought was a series of really superb jokes. No one has. You reload Twitter, just to be sure. You try to think of a better joke. You very slowly type “I love to send out save the date invitations that contain actual fruit” and then delete it in a fit of shame and horror.
It is now 3 a.m. “This will be fine,” you tell yourself, staring at the blank document again. So far, all you have typed is “ARRRRRRRGH HOW DO I BEGIN THIS,” but you are convinced that something will come to you. You delete it one letter at a time. “This will be fine, because I am a superhero.”
Then you fall asleep on your couch.
I have been trying not to procrastinate by hunting, online, for lists of Ways To Stop Procrastinating.
Most of these suggestions boiled down to: “So, you want to quit procrastinating? Here’s a suggestion! Try not putting things off until the last minute!” which is roughly the same as saying, “You want to not be late? Try showing up to things on time!”
Clearly, the author of these suggestions is no true procrastinator.
There are Web sites for people like us. (Admittedly, a Web site that discourages you from procrastinating is like a T-shirt promoting nudism.) There is one called WriteOrDie that literally eats your words if you do not type fast enough. I prefer to eat my words in a more relaxed setting, like after someone on the Internet has yelled at me.
There are apps, too. “iWillNotProcrastinate,” but that’s for students. There’s EndProcrastination Hypnosis, which boasts “Hypnosis is proven to be the most effective method to eliminate procrastination and get more done.”
“Do you avoid important tasks until the last possible minute? Are you a master of finding unimportant activities to do so you can delay doing the important ones? … By changing your subconscious thoughts, the End Procrastination Hypnosis app helps you easily get things done. After listening for just one to three weeks, you’ll begin to notice how liberating it is to complete important tasks quickly and easily.” One to three weeks? I don’t have that kind of time! I’m on a deadline!
Just to see what I was missing, I checked the reviews.
“Havnt listened to it yet” wrote MHx74. “I’ll get to it later.”
I hear you, my brother.