Five Ways to Procrastinate More Productively

From:…which just so happens to have some advice on avoiding procrastination altogether.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

What happened to my jet-setting lifestyle?

Not me. Also, not my photo.

It recently occurred to me that I might never step onto a plane with perfectly coifed hair, a single leather bag, and jaw-dropping heels. Women like that never bump into anyone or drop anything.  They are never running to make connections, a bit sweaty and wild-eyed, with plastic bags dangling from their forearms.  They are never hit on the head with something poorly stowed in the overhead compartment.

No, they simply glide onto their flight, murmuring amiably with the attractive stranger seated beside them, perhaps gesturing with an adult beverage.

For years, I kept hoping I would evolve, so the moment of my epiphany hit me pretty hard. After boarding a cross-country flight not long ago, I heard myself hailing a flight attendant because I had forgotten my special back pillow in the airport lounge. Egads. Have I really gone straight from new, incompetent travel mom to pre-geriatric without stopping? That hardly seems fair.

For the record, I took ballet for years, followed by modern dance and a long stint of yoga. I can stand on one foot for an eternity. I can ride a bike, do an elbow stand, a head stand, and a cartwheel, though none of the above is advised after a glass of wine. So how come when I enter an airport I look as if I were cast in my own personal slapstick comedy?

I imagine this is largely due to a variety of personal failings, but there are a number of forces conspiring against me.

1.  Security.

Though I have settled down considerably since my teenage years, authority figures continue to make me very, very nervous.  I even get a little clammy when asked for ID in the grocery store, so imagine my demeanor as I go through security.  No doubt this is why I am often the target of ‘random’ searches, and have had dangerous items like artichoke paste, Chapstick, and electrical tape seized. Thank goodness someone is looking out for wily people like me, though.  You probably didn’t even know that world domination was possible, armed with soft lips and duct tape’s travel-sized cousin.

And where exactly are you supposed to put your ID and boarding passes between checkpoints? It’s nerve-wracking (and feels foolish) to stow them in my carry-on and let them roll through security without me.  If I hold them, I’m afraid I’ll set them down and forget them when I tie my shoes and re-stow my laptop. Please don’t suggest pockets. Girl pockets are stupid. They are for show only. No decent wallet fits in a girl pants pocket, and even if you manage to squeeze the ID card in solo, it’s not like you can sit down afterwards.

2.  The age of carry ons vs. the world’s tiniest bladder.

Is it possible to remain properly hydrated without anxiously boring a hole in the seatbelt sign, waiting to make a break for the toilet? Sure, I go before I board the plane, but everything about using the airport restroom is a nightmare. Oh, how I miss my bag-checking days. How can I squeeze into the ludicrously undersized stall and close the door without dropping something in the toilet?  My latest trick is to set my backpack atop my top-heavy roll-y bag while dropping my trousers, only to topple the tower with my knees when I sit down. Everything scoots out from under the door, ramming some irritable/delayed/altitude-assed traveller on the shin. Nobody likes that. If you have ever seen a bride-to-be trying to use the facilities in full regalia, you might have some inkling of what is happening behind my door.  But brides have attendants, so there the similarity ends. Not that I want an extra person in there with me; I just want the disabled stall. Or iron kidneys.

3.  Annoying dietary restraints.

As a gluten-intolerant person unable to digest red meat, food is also an issue. I should mention that things are better these days, thank goodness, and I feel privileged to be able to purchase the $12 packet of hummus so I won’t starve en route. But that’s not going to help me when I land in South Dakota at 11 pm. I need to bring a loaf of my sad cardboard bread or a bag of rice cakes wherever I go, which is hard to squeeze into my carry-ons after laptop, camera, clothing, reading material, journal, toiletries, and bottle of water.  My bags are so over-stuffed that looking for a set of headphones could take twenty minutes and a complete reorg. How do you cram stuff in so it is possible to access what you need–without revealing your entire personal life to the folks sandwiched on either side? Oh, well. They probably saw it all when my bag was searched at security. Nothing will surprise them now.

4.  A bad back.

Never mind that I have a few good stories–including breaking up a fight and ‘exercising’ in an ‘unorthodox position.’  A bad back is a poor traveling companion, no matter how it happened. I simply can’t survive a long flight without my orthopedic pillow.  Wish that thing deflated, or somehow collapsed to fit in one of my bags. No can do.

So here I am, dragging a suitcase, a backpack, my ID and boarding pass, a pillow, a bag of rice cakes, and usually a couple of kids as well. I’m probably looking for the restroom. Maybe you could think kind thoughts, and try not to stare.


Charlie work for parents.

For those of you unfamiliar with the concept of Charlie work, it originated on an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and refers to the crappy jobs that no one wants to do–like cleaning toilets.

As parents, there are endless rewards and inspiring moments, and you can read all about them in a stack of Hallmark cards, or in one of those Chicken Soup-y books.

Then, there are the boring moments, like when your child is not quite sick enough–when pulling the shades and administrating tylenol is not sufficient–and you are forced to read Rainbow Magic Fairy books aloud all day long.

What remains after all the inspiration and the boredom is the Charlie work.  This category includes diaper duty, of course, but the bad jobs continue long past potty-training days.  Here’s the very tip top of my current list of Charlie work for parents.  Feel free to add to my list.

Attending assemblies.  Weirdly, I’ve heard some parents dig these.  I don’t know why.  They are always scheduled smack in the middle of the day, so you get to hunt for parking at drop off, pick up, AND assembly, but don’t have time to do anything useful in between except lament having to go.  You are funneled into a malodorous multi-purpose room, where the floor clings to your shoes with the lingering remains of corn dogs and barf.  Time to choose:  scrunch onto the end of one of those long clammy tables, or duel for one of the last rusty folding chairs in the back?   Choose wisely, because assemblies start late–REALLY late–providing ample time to reflect on “chicken fried steak” and canned peas.  An eternity passes.

The room swells with more and more children that are NOT YOURS and are consequently far less tolerable.  Someone is being gleefully squashed by their neighbors on the bench.  As the collisions escalate, crying starts, triggering an endless lecture.  Someone is making fart noises, and at least one or two small people have a sticky appendage lodged in a nostril at any given moment.  Make a mental note to use hand sanitizer at the next opportunity.  At last, the Principal waves awkwardly, taps the shrieking microphone, and makes the sign for “silent fox.”

Ears open; mouth closed.

The show commences.

Time grinds to a halt while everyone else’s kids do impossibly boring things that you can’t hear anyway. Then, when your own darling child finally lurches onto stage and does the most amazing thing ever, some asshole with a ten-inch lens elbows you out of the way and you miss the shot.

I’d like to see a greeting card for that mess.



Why you may want to wait and have that baby AFTER art school

It’s too late for me, obviously, but you could save yourself.

Nota bene:

*Maternity pants do not look quite right with the art uniform.

*Morning sickness does not mix well with photo chemistry.  Plus, using a ventilator mask only exacerbates the feeling that you are being invaded by aliens.

*It’s unwieldy and uncomfortable to schlepp lights, view cameras, tripods, stands, drawing boards, toolboxes, and power packs around with a basketball-sized babe lodged in your uterus.

*Being surrounded by photo students means you are pretty much guaranteed to see your child’s birth canal plastered all over somebody’s senior thesis show.  That’s right. Imagine standing in a room full of 20 year olds staring at your vagina blown up to 30 x 40. Awkward.

*It is impossible to care about footnoting properly when suffering from post-partum depression.

*Babies do not amuse themselves and/or sleep soundly just because you have a gigantic critique the next day.  EVEN WHEN YOU ASK NICELY.

*6 hour studio classes mean you have to sit on the nasty floor of the bathroom and pump during the break.

There are loads of other reasons, the most heinous of which I have gladly repressed. On the other hand, a baby provides a cheap and available model for many of your projects, and lots of sleep-deprived angst to channel into something creative. If you can drag school out for a few extra years, it just might work for you. Besides, during those moments when they’re not tired, cranky, hungry, or expelling something from one end or the other, babies are really quite charming.

What I have learned from the Tenderloin

Having two children and a husband who travels frequently, I don’t get out much.  The other day, I looked at where I was and what I was doing and had a complete conniption.  I turned to the woman next to me and demanded, “When and how did I turn into a f*cking soccer mom?!”  She may have laughed weakly before changing the subject to PTA memos, or box top collections, or some other topic to fuel my identity crisis.  Thank god one of the soccer dads started bringing comfortable chairs and adult beverages to practice.  That has really made my descent into personal hell more tolerable.

In light of this realization, I have been making a concerted effort to get out into the wide world once in a while.  A few days ago, that brought me to the Tenderloin.  There are definitely a few things to be learned from the seedy parts of San Francisco.

1.  Do not tell a gigantic, inebriated man that his Rottweiler is cute.

Though I’ve always assumed that, luckily I didn’t have to be the one to test the theory out. I did have to cross the street, however.  What a ruckus.

2.  The Tenderloin is a good place to be invisible.

I saw a man hobbling horribly on a crutch suddenly tuck it under his arm and ride off on a bicycle.  No one batted an eye.  If that sort of behavior passes under the radar, I imagine no one would notice if you fixed your bra-strap, or took care of that annoying crusty bit flapping around your left nostril.  Hell, you could have a whole garden variety melt-down there, and you’d blend right in.  It’s cheaper than therapy.

3.  Fancy shmancy organic-type Whole Paycheck markets are just as ridiculously expensive in economically under-resourced parts of town.

While I am thankful to find something besides del Taco for my snack emergencies, how do these places stay in business?  Where are the tasty food trucks?  The tamale lady? Happy hour?  That’s right.  Not here.  Might be time to head to Tu Lan.  Definitely don’t use the bathroom, but the food is tasty and cheap, and if I remember correctly, Julia Child used to slum it here when she wasn’t partying in her limo.  I’ve heard some stories.

4.  Seedy parts of town foster creativity.

I saw the most pathetically amusing and/or revolting painting of my entire life hanging in a place of prominence in a loin-y gallery.  Imagine a tiny, cluttered venue–art crammed into every cranny–devoting an entire wall to one enormous canvas.  Mostly it is a giant color field of oil paint, with a shit-brown lump at the bottom, and a little white unicorn in the the center.  I think the unicorn was crying; I might have made that part up, though.  At the top, in swirly, girly hand lettering, it says:  “I’ll never find true love…” followed by a very melancholic curlicue.  That thing is burned on my retinas.  It was awesome.  I dare you to find something like that at 49 Geary.

5.  In dire times, the first thing to go are your dreams for the future.

For some reason, I decided it would be cool to look at people’s old funky stuff.  I meandered into some pawn shops.  Have you noticed?  All of the pawn shops are clustered around the courthouse.  I had never thought about that before.  And guess what people hock to get out of jail?  Musical instruments and engagement rings.  Almost exclusively.  It is deeply depressing.  Why not get rid of…I don’t know…some technological gadget? A Blackberry?  The wii?  Or a TV?  Why not guns?  Get rid of that thing!  It didn’t help you out this time, did it?  And where you’re going, they’ll probably take it away at check-in. But no.  Love and music.

I suppose there are a lot of other lessons to be learned out there, but right now, I need to get some healthy snacks together for practice today.  And a big jug of wine.

5 topics I’m afraid to write about

My unabridged list is too long and unwieldy to share–even with myself–but after a minimal amount of thinking, here are five topics I’m afraid to write about:

1.  This one.

Seriously.  Anytime I sit down and stare at a blank page, I am terrified.  What if this time, NOTHING COMES OUT?  It could happen.  It happened yesterday, as a matter of fact, and there is absolutely no guarantee that today will be any different.

2.  Things I don’t know much about.

This is an alarmingly large category.  I really wish I had started a blog a few years ago when I knew everything.

3.  Really Big Topics.

Some people seem to get a thrill from tackling the big topics:  abortion, gun control, peace in the Middle East, that sort of thing.  Not me.  The other day, Scott Berkun prompted us Daily Post-ers to write about capital punishment, and that was the beginning of my writer’s block.  It’s not that I don’t have an opinion.  I do, and maybe that is all that’s necessary to start spewing, but I am always second-guessing myself.  These debates have been raging for decades; what could I possibly add to the conversation that would turn the tide?

4.  Cats.

As topic for any sort of discourse, pets dwell at the bottom of the barrel–right on top of the weather.  I used to read Jon Carrell on a regular basis back when I had a two-hour commute, and every time he wrote a column on his cat I thought, “This poor guy had no idea what to write today.”  On the other hand, I enjoy reading posts about pets when they are particularly amusing and well-written, and I do have quite a few seriously deranged pet stories once I screw up the courage.  You may be dubious.  Here’s something to whet your palate:  Guess which dead pet I allowed my five-year-old to sleep with?

5.  Love.

This is a freaking intense topic.  And complicated.  Jim Goldberg made me create a book about love one time and it was absolute garbage.  An embarrassment.  Probably the worst thing I’ve ever written and photographed.  I think it is nearly impossible to try to capture love without seeming annoying or cloying.  Or cynical.  Love has been watered down for the masses into a Hallmark-y mess.  Love is not just the doey-eyed rantings of horny teenagers.  But still, I am a great believer.  And I am thankful that there are books out there like The Year of Magical Thinking and The Age of Grief that start to get it right.  I’m just not ready for the big time yet.

A few things I wish I’d learned the easy way (part two)

     If you are wondering what this post is about and why it is called part two, it would be swell if you took a look at yesterday’s post.  Of course, I could just tell you that I’m passing on a few things I’ve discovered the hard way so you don’t have to.  I could even mention that on Sunday, I discussed poor vision, dumb cats, and boobs…but I think I’ll let you figure it all out for yourself.
4.  Avoiding conflict is not a long-term solution.
     Don’t get me wrong.  This is the secret to surviving the holidays and prolonged car trips.  I should know.  My family used to drive across the country every year with six people, a cat, and a very bad dog crammed into the car.  I learned how to get changed without flashing truckers, how to read inappropriate books without attracting any attention, and most importantly, how to keep my mouth shut.  Most of this I gleaned from watching my sister do it all wrong.
     One heated altercation ended abruptly when she rolled down the window of the Gran Torino and sat in the sill clinging to the car-top carrier.  Dad didn’t even slow down.  As we careened through the mountains with her ass dangling off the side of a cliff, I made a mental note:  never do what she had done.  I figured, why risk life and limb just to make your lousy point?  What good is making your parents so mad that they won’t pull over to make peace and/or save your crappy teenage life? It’s not like she got her way or anything.  (F.Y.I.:  She’s alive!  And she’s not crappy; I meant that being a teenager feels kind of crappy sometimes).
     While the lesson here seems obvious now–avoid confrontation while piled in the family truckster–I processed this lesson in a much broader sense.  I came to the unfortunate conclusion that conflict was to be avoided at all costs and inany situation.  Though I was probably only 7 or 8 at the time, it has taken me an embarrassingly long time to re-evaluate.
     There are plenty of times when I still suck it up.  I continue to do whatever is necessary to endure five days in the car–like buy a plane ticket instead.  What I am saying is that over a long period of time, avoiding conflict is bad for the digestive system, the quality of life, and the very relationships you are trying to protect.  If you are afraid that broaching a topic might drive a wedge between you and someone you love, remember that your silence has already formed a wedge.  Avoiding the truth ensures that real connection cannot occur.
     Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

A few things I wish I’d learned the easy way (part one)

     You’re probably smart.  Well, you can read, anyway.  That’s something.  You probably listened to your mother, finished what you started, and paid your bills on time.  Or maybe you’re a dog owner.  The disciplined kind.  You kennel Fido at night so no one needs to worry about life and limb.  In that case, you may find the information below completely superfluous.  Feel free to add a few lessons of your own to the list for my benefit.  But for those of you who insist on learning things the hard way like me, I thought I would contribute my two cents over the next couple of days.  Perhaps it will save you some trouble.
     I’ll start with a simple one.
1.  Black cats are hard to see at night.
     Seems obvious, doesn’t it?  But it didn’t occur to me until after a number of very unfortunate incidents.  I bet my cat wishes I had figured this one out faster as well.  Maybe folks who are near-sighted should not be allowed to adopt black cats.  Still, it might behoove her to avoid lolling on the stairs or around the base of the toilet after dark.
     I would make a snide comment about Darwinism here except that she is often quite charming, and reasonably intelligent about other matters–like how to get the mouse cage off the top shelf, for example.
2.  Projecting self-confidence may have less to do with Dale Carnegie and more to do with proper carriage.  
     Despite years of ballet and constant admonishment from my mother, my terrible posture endures.  I naturally slump and slide my neck out like a chicken, and though it drives me crazy, I cannot seem to fix it. When I do actively focus on alignment it makes me sound and feel more confident, and it is amazing how people respond.  My theory is that this is the physical side of “acting as if.” (My apologies.  That phrase bugs the crap out of me, too.)
     What seemed to get good posture off the back burner was when my exasperated yoga teacher finally said:  “It’s not about pulling your shoulders down or back; it’s about leading with your sternum.”  And as I was trying to internalize her words, I realized that what she was suggesting actually feels like sticking your boobs out into the great unknown.  What’s more, it works.  Everything magically falls into place.  Seriously, if you have them, it’s worth a try.
     Unfortunately, I have also discovered some truth in “the bigger, the better,” and the first time I stood up straight and wore a wonderbra simultaneously, the response was a little frightening.  My jokes were funnier, my comments carried more weight.  Both men and women complimented me profusely and asked, “What’s different, though?  Did you change your hair?”  That was all a bit depressing, so I shelved that wiry contraption, but I guess it’s useful information to have in case of an emergency.
     Extra bonus of better posture:  fewer lectures from the cranky chiropractor.
     Downside:  It’s hard for me to concentrate on what I’m saying while working so hard to align the spine.  Now I look smarter, but sound insipid.  Oh, well.  See #3.
3.  Deep down we are all a bit shallow.
Now I should probably parent a little.  More tomorrow.