Archive for October 3rd, 2011

Writing as Procrastination

Every week in my writing group we’re encouraged to set a goal about what we want to accomplish by the next meeting.  Sometimes those goals are as broad as what we call “writerly behavior” and as specific as editing a given chapter of a work in progress.  A little less than two years ago I went into a meeting with an odd goal for the next week: not writing.  None at all.  At that point in time my wife and I were getting ready to move from our apartment into our first house, and I was using writing as an excuse not to pack.

So when I came across this article by Stanford philosophy professor John Perry on the Ig Nobel Prize website, the central thesis didn’t surprise me.

I have been intending to write this essay for months. Why am I finally doing it? Because I finally found some uncommitted time? Wrong. I have papers to grade, a grant proposal to review, drafts of dissertations to read.

I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination, an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.

There it is.  There’s what had me working on short stories instead of putting stuff into boxes.  When presented with a task that I wasn’t all that interested in doing, I was choosing not only to avoid it, but had even found a productive activity1 to use as procrastination.  I’d largely forgotten the episode until I came across Perry’s article and realized I’d done exactly what the author describes as “structured procrastination.”

The idea that writing as something we procrastinate with rather than procrastinate about is an odd realization to have.  Hell, my writers group is basically named after the procrastination process.  How can we make that transition?  How can we make procrastination work for us?  Again from the article:

To make structured procrastination work for you, begin by establishing a hierarchy of the tasks you have to do, in order of importance from the most urgent to the least important. Even though the most-important tasks are on top, you have worthwhile tasks to perform lower on the list. Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, you can become a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

The challenge is setting up that list.  Determining what projects need to be at the top of the list, where to put writing, and how to effectively use structured procrastination in our writing.  Part of the problem is that the high list items should, per the author, “have clear deadlines (but really don’t), and they seem awfully important (but really aren’t).”  That really sounds a lot like writing for most pre-professional writers trying to break into the field.  Which means the writing ends up being the task we put off and put off.  There’s nothing holding our feet to the fire, there’s no reason not to put it off just a little more.

How do we find the right tasks to avoid with writing?  Well in my case, I can’t move every couple of months to get a short story done.  But I have been known to feel a lot less guilty about a pile of plates left in the sink if I got more than 1000 words written in a given night.  That’s not to say that writing should be used as an excuse to live in squalor, but perhaps the impression some have of writers as wearing unwashed clothes with rumpled hair comes from a fine history of structured procrastination.  Eventually the dishes will get done, but perhaps the next night something else waits just a little longer because I’ve got just a few more paragraphs left to edit.

The assignment: figure out your own structure, work out the things that you really should be doing, but could maybe wait just a little bit while you finish up that story draft.  The things that are important, but not so much so that you can’t finish up that outline.  Procrastination can be a dangerous vice for a writer, but as the article points out, it can also be a hell of a tool when used properly.

Now get out there and don’t do something!

1. As with beauty, productivity of an activity is in the eye of the beholder.  I’m sure my wife would not agree that writing instead of packing was “productive.”

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