I typically need someone to disappoint if I’m going to get a job finished. If I have a real person relying on me to do something, and a real reason for doing it, I’ll do it to the best of my ability. I’ll stay up all night if necessary; I’ll torture myself learning how to do it perfectly; I’ll even pay for any equipment or services (Dropbox; Canva…) needed to get it done. Give me a good reason to do something, and rely on me, and I’ll generally exceed your expectations. Which would be great if I were a plumber, or a nurse, or, indeed, any kind of employee. It worked in my favour when I was doing my Master’s and when, last spring, I took on a contract to support a company to deliver a huge medical conference. But as someone who’s trying to make writing her occupation it’s slightly trickier: no one has asked me to do it, and there is no deadline. And now, with life on hold, it’s become just about impossible to convince myself to go near any of my old work, which needs editing, or attempt anything new. I am a middle-aged procrastinator and all my (metaphorical) whips have dissolved.
Until lockdown I just about managed to convince myself that my writing, if I get it right, could be important enough to work on. And to be on the safe side, and provide the possible Disappointee, I joined a group of other writers with manuscripts to hone: serious, hardworking writers all. I’d also forged links with a few local arts organisations who would contract me to run writing classes from time to time: to be able to run a good writing class, I reasoned, one has to know what it is to write in this moment. Compound these with my ongoing Literature Ambassador commission from the Wigtown Festival Company and I had a pretty solid triangle of support. The triangle still exists, of course (the writers in the group and the organisations, including the WFC) and I still don’t want to disappoint them, but lockdown (and the jolly good reasons for it) has me struggling to feel their presence. The outside world has become an abstract concept, a memory, fainter than the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave. The fire has gone out.
My problem as a procrastinator is I can’t work myself up to do something unless it either feels important for the greater good, and/or until it’s become really rather pressing. I clean the house only when it becomes urgent. Urgent, here, translates as: I’m expecting visitors (I think I may be part Japanese because I always want visitors to have a wonderful experience); an unpleasant smell that can’t be dealt with by burning incense and opening a window is becoming too much of a thing; or a task even less appealing, such as writing a lesson plan or doing my tax return, is beginning to assert itself. Then I spring into action and no surface is safe. At the moment the only things that feel both important and urgent are: a) the happiness of The Husband (who seems to actively prefer a grubby, shambolic house) and, b) not getting fat. So my time is divided into watching Netflix in bed with said husband, and walking like a loon round and round our local woodland hill, while listening to episodes of This American Life or, my latest favourite, Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History. I usually take my daily walk before The Husband wakes, but it’s raining this morning and I don’t think my wireless headphones will like the rain, so I’m doing this instead. Yep, walking in the rain with only myself for company is less appealing than writing a blog post about what a chump I am.
It was raining yesterday too, and I was resting a throbbing ankle, so as an alternative to physical walking I wandered round YouTube and found this:
I recognised myself instantly in Urban’s description of a procrastinator. I have a strong sense of the Rational Decision Maker (RDM) in my brain, who knows planning and slowly building a project will both get the best results, and keep me sane. But, gads, do I also have an Instant Gratification Monkey (IGM) in there! And my IGM is perfectly capable of convincing my RDM that reading about String Theory, or memorising America’s state capitals is really important for my Great Task.** That, in fact, I’m unlikely to ever be able to write the book I want to without it. When I’m doing something for someone else, or have someone who could be disappointed if I don’t complete something – my writing group and that chapter I promised I’d finish by our next meeting, for example – I have been rescued by a Panic Monster who wakes up just in time for me to get the job done well enough. Sometimes, like with the medical conference contract, my panic monster is awake from the second I agree to the task. Other times, like with my own writing, my panic monster wakes only when my RDM has become so anxious I can’t sleep. Now we’re in lockdown and I’ve become unmoored from a future that, at the best of times, has never been particularly distinct, my panic monster is in a coma. And that would probably be fine if my Rational Decision Maker was happy to just ride this out with the Instant Gratification Monkey at the helm: communing with nature and learning to distinguish the song of the blackcap from that of the garden warbler; going for long walks and delighting in the fact most of my clothes are feeling a little loose. But she’s not, she’s miserable. She wants to redraft the book on Cézanne. Actually she wants to rewrite it from the point of view of Hortense, his wife. But with the IGM firmly in control she’s withering away. And this is now affecting everything.
I’ve got to the stage where I can’t even bring myself to look at my emails. I haven’t written the blog posts I intimated I would for the community council. Hell, I can’t even be bothered to cook the rhubarb that grows in our allotment bed. I need to do something to break my lockdown lethargy and save my RDM before she commits seppuku. So I have the shadow of a plan.
I visited Urban’s website: Wait But Why to learn more about his ideas, and to see if he’s suggested any strategies to overcome the IGM. There I found a series of posts on procrastination which I think could help. I’ve taken lots of notes, drawn lots of diagrams and, with luck my RDM, who’s already perked up, can manipulate my Instant Gratification Monkey into thinking blogging about this is an easy and fun way to spend time.
Yes, I know blogging about procrastination is just another form of procrastination. That it’s not rewriting my novel, or editing any of the hundreds of short stories languishing on my hard-drive. But, at the moment it’s the only thing I’ve got. And blogging is writing, right?
*I owe this term to fellow community councillor, Keith. Thanks Keith!
**See Nietzsche’s autobiography, Ecco Homo.