• Rowan Fortune

On Procrastination

A look at what causes procrastination, with a detour on writer's block.



Since I have lately erred a fair bit on my weekly essay writing schedule, I have had that ‘thief of time’ (as Edward Young described procrastination) a lot in my mind. I have even been engaged in a few discussions on the topic. Additionally, I have recently initiated a new twitter, and since social media is regarded as so rife with this danger, I have reflected somewhat on whether—and in what ways—that charge against it might be true. Moreover, as a writer, I have reencountered the question of writer’s block again lately, as something new writer’s especially struggle to overcome. And this alleged block feels deeply related too.


In general procrastination strikes me as a poorly conceived problem. Even Young’s now clichéd poetic notion about it feels as if it is selecting a muddled emphasis, perhaps for effect. (I love Young’s melancholic reflections and appreciate why William Blake took so strongly to illustrating Night Thoughts, but there is also something to George Eliot’s charge that he demonstrates an ‘incessant search after point and novelty’ apt to produce future prosaisms. Even if Eliot was a bit harsh overall.)


The problem, in short, is not with the way in which we procrastinate, or the surface consequences of doing so, which so takes up Young’s fancy, but why we do so at all. What is it even really all about. The notion that we procrastinate because we are distracted by a rival source of activity that nonetheless is unproductive, perhaps misses the real driver. And introduces the idea that the activities of procrastination are simply wasted, lost, ‘stolen’, without having a possible merit in themselves.


We can easily see that the transparent source of procrastination is also a red herring. This is implied because there are endless sources of superficially compelling activity and were their mere existence sufficient we would all be driven to a constant battle with the urge to distract ourselves, and would do so all of the time without that endlessly reaffirmed effort. I want to suggest that this is plainly untrue.


I take a similar issue with writer’s block as a concept. I accept that there is such a thing, but I am suspicious that the process is not quite as it is sometimes imagined. That is to say, that the reason is the blank page, that it alone acts as a kind of intimidation or distraction from the activity of writing, an obstacle that once traversed through some deft trick will happily unlock for a would-be author a great untapped creativity and the steady flow of reliable prose. It is an enticing miscalculation, because it places the dilemma in something ineffably external. The page itself distracts from the anxiety.


And that, I believe, is the real source. When procrastination is not merely a false way of casting the deeper problem of having too much to be able to do (self-evidently not procrastination at all), it is a way in which to frame a problem of avoiding anxiety in such terms that, additionally, perversely, avoid the given anxiety.

Writer’s block most often is a problem of confidence, either a generalised lack of it for all writing or a specific lack of it for a particularly kind of writing. As an acute form of procrastination, but like all forms, the block is a type of cognitive dissonance: on the one side we wish to perform the action, in this case writing, on the other we don’t. How we go about not writing or the mere fact of being faced with a blank page is at least less relevant than why we want to write, and why we do not want to write.


This cuts to something else. Procrastination is unduly maligned. Once we examine the two opposing pulls, expressed in anxiety, it could be that clarity shows we are procrastinating from something we should not do. Or should not do in a particular way. Perhaps there is an unpreparedness (a lack of research, for example, as we embark on an ambitious novel) that is genuine and makes us hesitate, but unexamined cannot be identified and therefore fixed by future preparations.


Returning to the scourge of social media, I believe it is rightly blamed for much procrastination, but in the wrong sense. If procrastination is rooted in an anxious cognitive dissonance, the sources of anxious cognitive dissonances are likely producing it. Sources of bad anxious cognitive dissonance, whereby the pull not to do something has little real basis, are liable to produce a bad form of procrastination, which if properly addressed would simply disappear.


But this is not the charge levelled at social media. Instead, it is accused of just being such a compelling and hypnotic distraction that in itself causes the problem. This means that ‘solutions’ to it—or how those solutions are deployed—can be ineffectual. Take blocking apps, as an example of something I use. If deployed only to prevent access to social media during specific working periods, these seem to accomplish little for me. But if deployed to block social media for long periods of the week, it works wonders.


I wish to be on social media to have access to certain people and promote certain work (this essay, for instance), but the very architecture of social media (its emphasis on encouraging low-stakes, high impact attention) is geared to a form of anxiety making sensationalism, particularly as fear of missing out (FOMO). (A fact compounded when this also makes it an ideal territory for reactionaries, conspiracists and bigots of every type.) Whatever Web 2.0’s merits (and these do exist), it creates psychological conditions ripe for the worst procrastination.


How then should we counter the problem of procrastination? I have no foolproof method. Life has been tumultuous in recent months and—as mentioned—I have fallen victim to the anxieties that create this problem. But if any method reliably works, it is in reflecting on the activity being avoided to find what it is about the pull away from it that is so overpowering. It can be that it puts you in mind of something uncomfortable, which therefore needs directly facing.


It is also helpful to have rituals for activities. These promote a comforting and therefore anxiety-easing quality, a rhythm to the tasks we are avoiding. If rituals are kept up with regularity, procrastination, which is a subterranean, unconscious impulse so long as it holds power, shows itself up more visibly and sooner. The disruption to the patterns become more undeniable.


For writer’s block, and similar activities that are likewise inhibited, you can overcome some of the more obvious forms of anxiety quite simply too. You can do so merely by engaging in types of writing that cause no anxiety. Tell yourself that this writing exercise is just for yourself, and even permit the writing of outright nonsense in a daily routine. In short, first make writing an instinct, something less revered and therefore less frightening than a special activity that requires that panic before the void of the fresh page. When I started journaling as a child I found it hard to sustain; only later did I realise it was because I treated journaling as something to do right, and therefore became anxious of doing it wrong. Only when I saw journals as all-purpose scrapbooks did the habit truly take hold.


Furthermore, carefully seek the outside constructive help that will build your confidence rather than demolish it, as so much careless input easily can. And finally, learn to enjoy writing; it is no surprise so many do not wish to do something they have come to frame for themselves as a chore.


Procrastination (and writer’s block) are not our enemies. They are not malign thieves. They are symptoms, pointing to deeper problems. They are useful indicators that something is wrong, which need heeding in some form. To move beyond such symptoms, it is necessary to understand them.


 

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