On Procrastination

November 24, 2021 § 6 Comments

By Geoff Watkinson

In 1997, Charlie Rose asked David Foster Wallace, who had just received a MacArthur Foundation fellowship grant, how Wallace would spend his year off. “If past experience holds true,” Wallace responded, “I will probably write an hour a day and spend eight hours a day biting my knuckle and worrying about not writing.” I identify with this creative anxiety—of the invading despair of a whole day turning into a seemingly unproductive haze, a procrastination stupor. I forget, however, that some of the greatest minds struggle with procrastination. Wallace was a television fiend. This makes me feel better.

When I have days of consistent writing, it is usually because I’m in the routine of identifying topics that I’m curious about, and then jumping down the rabbit hole, researching, taking notes, pulling out quotes, watching a documentary, or calling a writer friend for suggestions. And then I sit down to start the writing, likely without knowing my destination, but trusting the process—the journey. More is always revealed, and this is what makes me excited about writing.

When I have days of inconsistent writing—or not writing at all—I can become irritable and restless, switching between cooking and doing laundry and watching Netflix and going grocery shopping and getting a haircut, and, at the end of the day, it seems that nothing has been accomplished except errands that didn’t really need to get done at all. Creativity is elusive. Motivation is fleeting. Procrastination reigns in one form or another.

In an essay for BBC’s Creativity Collective, Loizos Heracleous and David Robson write “…that creative insights are much more likely to occur after a period of ‘incubation’—in which you focus on something entirely different from the job at hand, while your brain works away behind the scenes. This could include taking a walk, doing household chores or having a shower. Even our procrastination at work—such as watching funny YouTube videos—may be helpful for our problem solving, provided it is done in moderation.” Simple, short-term distractions are catalysts for stimulating creativity. The science says that I’m marinating my ideas while I’m washing the car or making a sandwich. My issue is that bit about moderation. Procrastination can be an aggressive cancer, attacking creativity, overtaking my ability to continue at all.

Procrastination at work has as much to do with the intention—or lack thereof—of an individual’s procrastination. Aditya Shukla, an Applied Psychologist who runs Cognition Today, writes about the two forms of procrastination: active and passive. Shukla writes that “active procrastination means you choose to delay working on a task because you like to work under pressure and that lets you perform better. Passive procrastinators,” however, “are often crippled by indecision and an inability to self-regulate—that gets in the way of completing a task.” This is the same concept that Heracleous and Robson at the BCC propose: “…a period of incubation allows us to gain some psychological distance from our task. When you spend a long time focusing on one problem, you can become fixated on certain obvious solutions. A period of incubation should help you to widen your mental focus so that you can make connections and come back to the problem with a new perspective.” The trick is being aware of procrastination and inviting it into the creative process instead of allowing it to overtake the process entirely.

The research supports the conclusions of both articles. Research finds that “active procrastinators delayed their work just as much as passive procrastinators, but the former group had a better GPA, higher life-satisfaction, more purposeful use of time, and higher self-efficacy. Of all measured variables among the 3 groups [active procrastinators, passive procrastinators, and non-procrastinators], active procrastinators had the highest self-efficacy which suggests they strongly believe in their ability to successfully complete their work and have the confidence that their “process” works.” Prior to sitting down and writing, I try to let the concept of the piece I’m about to write marinate. But during the pandemic, this changed. Passive procrastination overtook my creative process, leading to stress and anxiety and insecurity. I stopped writing. I didn’t think I could write anymore.  

I am reminded of E.B. White, made famous by Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, but one of the great essayists of the twentieth century. In an interview in The Paris Review, White said, “Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive with him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words.” White produced volumes and volumes of work that ran the literary gamut. He reminds me that, as an essayist, there is no shortage of topics, and it’s okay to think about it for some time.

I try to think, too, of David Foster Wallace or Leonardo da Vinci for motivation when I demean myself for procrastinating or claim to have writer’s block. W.A. Pannapacker writes, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “If there is one conclusion to be drawn from the life of Leonardo [da Vinci], it is that procrastination reveals the things at which we are most gifted—the things we truly want to do. Procrastination is a calling away from something that we do against our desires toward something that we do for pleasure, in that joyful state of self-forgetful inspiration that we call genius.” I am not a genius. But it’s nice to know that da Vinci struggled too. And so I’ll go for a walk. Make another cup of coffee. Talk on the phone. Watch a TedTalk. I might not find the perfect wave, but I know one will come, eventually, that will take me back to shore.

___

Geoff Watkinson has contributed to Guernica, storySouth, The Humanist, The San Diego-Tribune, The Virginian-Pilot, and Switchback, among others. His first nonfiction collection, Have Some Faith in Loneliness & Other Essays, is due out in late 2021 (Dreaming Big Publications). He is the founder/managing editor of Green Briar Review. Read more of his writing here.

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§ 6 Responses to On Procrastination

  • Vickie says:

    Thanks for this. I can relate to so much of it, including the difficulty of writing during the pandemic. I’ve rediscovered the magic of walking away from a piece and letting it germinate. This is something I did when writing papers in college many years ago. Nice essay! I’m always fascinated by how our brains work.

  • kperrymn says:

    I like this essay a lot, too. What better way to procrastinate than to read an essay about the benefits of procrastinating? 😊 Thanks for this insightful piece.

  • Elaine says:

    Interesting essay; thanks.

  • It sounds, Geoff, like you’ve been looking over my shoulder… your description of procrastination sounds like my normal writing day! Thanks for the reminder to get on with it — the writing, not the procrastination, unless the latter is spent researching something “I’m curious about, and then jumping down the rabbit hole, researching, taking notes, pulling out quotes, watching a documentary, or calling a writer friend for suggestions.” (Thanks for such a quotable description of time spent!.)

  • Thank you! So much here for me. You explain me to me.

  • I never understood why I procrastinated, but I believed it had something to do with my brain wanting to work a problem out. About 6 months ago I started passing time with an online app called Wordscapes, where the goal is to use the letters provided to make words that match blank boxes. I realized that if I was really stuck, I could close the app, and when I returned a few hours or a day later, I’d immediately know the answers. Now I feel more comfortable and less guilty putting problems on ice for awhile instead of continuing to bang my head against them.

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