May 16, 2010

Procrastination Theory and Practice

Several years ago I heard of a study (my recollection of it is a little fuzzy, so forgive me for not going into too much detail) performed wherein gorillas were given some sort of treatment that blocked a certain part of their brain activity, which led them to perform whatever task they were given immediately, without delay. Rather than selling this as a miracle cure for laziness or procrastination, researchers actually came to the conclusion that the part of the brain they had tampered with was the one in charge of estimating how long a certain task will take. So in essence, the gorillas were not cured of their laziness, but were actually given the anxiety of not knowing whether they have enough time to complete the task at hand (which, perhaps, is what diligence actually is).

I have used that story several times in the past, telling it to myself as well as others, in an attempt to excuse my constant procrastination (e.g. I can wait until the night before that Modernism paper is due to start writing it because my mighty brain is not in panic mode yet, which means that it knows I will be able to get it done in time). The problem is that this excuse doesn't really work when it comes to writing, since there are rarely any deadlines other than the ones I arbitrarily impose on myself and habitually fail to meet. Thus, it's very easy to procrastinate for days on end, constantly feeling guilty about not writing but never quite getting to the point of sitting down and getting it done, because that adrenaline-infused panicked feeling just isn't there.

And there are additional wrinkles to the procrastination problem, because just as there are no established deadlines, there are no established limits either, so that if I get my current writing project done earlier, I wouldn't have to sit around waiting for the world to catch up, I could simply get started on the next one, and the next one after that (ideas are not something I'm currently short on; I already have a pretty good idea of what my next 3 big writing projects are going to be), but the longer I procrastinate, the longer I defer these projects. And then there's also the problem of what I'm doing while I'm procrastinating, which is essentially nothing - If I hadn't planned to sit down and get work done, I could have gone to the beach, cooked something up, finished reading a book, or basically anything other than sitting at the computer and not writing, or writing, but not the stuff I should be writing. What do you think I'm doing right now? Blogging about procrastination rather than writing fiction.

A recent book review by Brendan Boyle (in BookForum where registration, which is free, is required for access), which I obviously came across while procrastinating, brings up similar points. Boyle begins his review of The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination by actually reading Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage, a different book about procrastination, and then lamenting, "and so it began, putting off writing by reading about putting off writing, all with a familiar irritation and indignation." The Thief of Time, unfortunately, offers little solace for the procrastinating writer, instead choosing to discuss pigeon behavior at length, but Boyle does present an interesting Rilke quote as a coda: 
I have often asked myself whether those days on which we are forced to be indolent are not just the ones we pass in profoundest activity? Whether all our doing, when it comes later, is not only the last reverberation of a great movement which takes place in us on those days of inaction.
So is procrastination not only natural, but necessary? Perhaps, but I also think a certain kind of writerly procrastination, namely blogging, answers a much clearer psychological need - the need for an audience. As a still unpublished novelist, I can't expect to get anyone's response to my work (except for the occasional trustworthy friend or family member), but as a blogger I can get much more immediate responses, often from people I don't know (in the form of comments, emails, and even "like"s on Facebook), for something I didn't have to work on for months and years.

No comments:

Post a Comment