The end of January is coming, which means we’ve all had a few weeks now to make—and break—our New Year’s resolutions. I’m not opposed to resolutions, but I’m trying to learn to cut myself some slack if I don’t manage to keep them. Stop Procrastinating is usually near the top of my list, and sometimes I can do it, start right in on whatever task I’ve been avoiding. Some things are easier than others: emptying the compost, cleaning closets, purging files.
But when it comes to writing, I’m learning there’s sometimes a reason I’m avoiding it, in addition to my usual “I want it to be perfect” tendency; sometimes I’m just not ready. Is it possible to procrastinate mindfully? As much as it may sound like an oxymoron, I think we can. I’ve learned to have other writing projects on deck so I’m not dead in the water, and sometimes these projects move forward more quickly than the project I’m procrastinating.
For example, I recently completed a poetry manuscript while I was putting off working on a collection of essays. In the process of doing this, I wrote about emotions I’d been reluctant to address in prose and now feel more ready to return to the essays. Brenda and I wrote the letters that became The Pen & the Bell as our “fun” writing, when we were both supposedly working on our respective Sabbatical writing projects .
I was heartened to read in a recent column by John Tierney in The New York Times that I’m far from alone. According to the article, Piers Steel, a psychologist at the University of Calgary, calls this strategy “productive procrastination” and says it’s his favorite of the techniques he studied while researching his 2011 book, The Procrastination Equation:
“For most of us, procrastination can be beaten down, but not entirely beaten,” Dr. Steel said. “My best trick is to play my projects off against each other, procrastinating on one by working on another.”
Dr. Steel, who has surveyed more than 24,000 people around the world, says that 95 percent of people confess to at least occasional procrastination. (You can gauge yourself by taking his survey at Procrastinus.com.) About 25 percent of those surveyed are chronic procrastinators, five times the rate in the 1970s. He attributes the increase to the changing nature of the workplace: the more flexible that jobs become, the more opportunities to avoid unpleasant tasks.
So, rather than berate yourself for being part of the 95% of people who procrastinate, procrastinate mindfully—with full awareness of what you’re doing and why. Remember that part of trusting yourself is having compassion when a writing task is difficult, that sometimes the muse responds more readily to gentle words than a whip.
This week, pay attention when you feel tempted to procrastinate and reflect on that urge. Sit with it, befriend it, fix it a cup of tea, wrap it in a shawl and listen carefully, intently. What can you learn from it? Why are you avoiding it? What can it tell you? Then gather your courage and plunge in. Or decide you’re not ready and let that be OK.
In the meantime, make a list of projects you can work on until you DO feel ready. Keep the list at your desk, so the next time you’re avoiding sitting down to work, you have a list of projects at hand you can complete. In doing so, you’ll join the ranks of the “positive procrastinators.”
Yours, procrastinating mindfully,