It occurs to me that I have become pretty adept at procrastination. Maybe I should write a few how-tos.
When I mentioned this to a friend, she responded enthusiastically:
“Ooh! Contemplate the cat. Play Age of Empires. Watch the Biggest Loser finale over two days, in 5 minute increments; sob hysterically, and pretend it’s allergies.”
“No, no,” I said. “I mean how to procrastinate productively.”
“Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?” she wondered. A reasonable question, but I think not.
Here’s how I discovered the vast potential of my avoidance strategies: I foolishly promised someone I would read Proust, so that we could engage in some Heady Discourse. I didn’t promise to read all 4,211 pages, mind you; not all seven volumes. Just the first one: Swann’s Way.
I bought the thing in hardcover by accident, and it was just so crazy big, so heavy-looking and heavy-feeling, that I could not coax myself to get past the first ten pages. It did, however, make me feel terribly guilty sitting there, so I started to tackle other, less intimidating material I had been meaning to read for ages. I simply used my guilt to read a whole host of other books while Proust lay on my bedside table, chiding me.
That’s the secret, really. Just think of a task that you would mind only slightly less than what you are supposed to be doing, and do that instead. If you mind it a lot less, chances are it’s not a particularly productive choice.
To illustrate, here are five useful things I have done while busy not-writing this post:
- I cleaned out the refrigerator. If I had had a big research project due, I probably could have made myself take everything out and sanitize that sucker. This time, I merely went through it shelf by shelf, drawer by drawer, and did a little wipe down. All it needs now is a new box of Arm & Hammer.
- I got rid of fifty things. I thought that would take a lot longer than it did. It is actually not that hard to purge 50 things, depending on how you are counting. The added bonus is that purging feels great. I’d even dump Swann’s Way, but without a literary moral compass sitting on the shelves, I’d probably devolve and peruse People magazine every night. Best to save the trashy magazines for dental appointments only.
- I wrote a letter by hand to a couple of people I have been neglecting. Far-away family member? Check. Estranged former roommate? Check. Boy, did that feel cathartic. Plus, people enjoy snail mail. When is the last time you received anything hand-written besides a thank you note? If you even get those! Incidentally, if I owe you one, I apologize. I probably tidied my desk instead.
- I got some exercise. Taking care of my body has totally taken a back seat to almost everything else, but the truth is, I need to start looking after this thing. Apparently, I’m not going to wake up in tip-top shape without making some sort of effort. Thanks to my To-Do list, I’ve been up a mountain twice this week, plus done a little yoga. Now I am sleeping better as a little added benefit–except when I wake up and worry about what I have left undone.
- I have cracked down on my mail pile. I paid my bills. I located and actually used a couple of gift certificates. In general, those tend to wind up in the trash a year or two after they expire, so that felt particularly satisfying. I’m going to have an awesome new lunch box, and my kid will get to take an art class, all because I did not want to do what I was supposed to be doing.
But let’s say you really need to make yourself face down some heinous task—one so emotionally draining, or terrifying, or just so darn huge it seems absolutely insurmountable from this side of the to-do list.
In that case, I recommend reading Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. That will take a day or two, and really inspire you in the process.
What are you supposed to do today? Taxes? Schedule a root canal? Perhaps you could clean out a closet or two instead, and even squeeze in a trip to Goodwill.