procrastination

Procrastination is thinking

“You call it procrastinating, I call it thinking.”

Aaron Sorkin

“Procrastinating is a vice when it comes to productivity, but it can be a virtue for creativity. What you see with a lot of great originals is that they are quick to start but they are slow to finish.”

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Theories of procrastination

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Categories: Writing    Tags: ·

On procrastination, good and bad

We tend to think of procrastination as a personal failing, even a moral flaw, a sin. For novelists in particular, marooned at our lonely desks and in our heads, facing enormous tasks and distant deadlines, procrastination is a besetting danger. The web makes the problem infinitely worse, with its little cruelty of turning the writer’s workspace, his computer screen, into an endless cabinet of wonders. Distraction is always just two clicks away.

There is now a small industry churning out advice on how to stay productive in the age of distraction, but it all boils down to this: put away your toys and get to work. In his wonderful The War of Art, Steven Pressfield advises, “Be a pro.” And that, honestly, is the bottom line. Just do it.

Personally, I try to live by that advice. By nature I am lazy and undisciplined, a lifelong procrastinator, so I rely on a set of formal strategies to stay focused. I work in a barren office, on an ancient ThinkPad T23 laptop that has no internet capability. I cripple my smart phone using various apps. (I fiddle constantly with how best to disable my phone during work hours, which, yes, I know.) When all else fails, I leave the damn phone at home.

Fellow weak-willed writers, I can’t say this strongly enough: do not burn energy resisting the temptation of the web. Just turn it off completely. Unplug. Research has shown that people who exhibit strong willpower are not better at resisting temptation; they simply do not expose themselves to temptation. They do not bravely refuse to eat the ice cream in the freezer; they never go down the frozen-food aisle in the supermarket in the first place.

Once I have unplugged from the web, I focus on starting. Not writing a whole novel or even a single scene, not writing for a certain period of time or hitting some daily word-quota. Just starting. As a writer, that is the most essential and difficult thing you will do: start. You must learn to start and start and start. Every morning, despite the awesome scale of the task, despite your own mounting anxiety, you must start. You will fail, of course. All writers fail. Most writers fail most of the time. Doesn’t matter. Get up, dust yourself off, and start again. If you start enough, in some small percentage of those attempts, you will achieve the blessed, transporting, trance-like state of flow that every writer treasures, and the residue of that deeply-focused work will be words on the page.

So that is my anti-procrastination strategy. In two words: unplug and start. I do not claim there is any special wisdom there, nor do these strategies work infallibly for me. I fail all the time, and I scourge myself for it. Probably you do, too.  if you are a writer. It seems to be a universal feeling in this job. But failure is part of writing. Tomorrow you will try again. What choice is there? As Beckett said, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

With all that said, I would like to suggest that some procrastination is actually good. Yes, good. Sometimes a writer resists writing not because he is lazy or careless, but because the passage just isn’t ready to be written. Hemingway famously said, “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.” Sometimes the way your shit detector goes off is by refusing to allow you to write shit in the first place.

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Categories: Productivity · Writing    Tags: ·

The procrastination muse

A visit from the procrastination muse

Via

Categories: Writing    Tags: · · ·

Leonardo, procrastinator

I was heartened (relieved, really) to find this wonderful essay describing Leonardo da Vinci as “a hopeless procrastinator.”

Leonardo rarely completed any of the great projects that he sketched in his notebooks. His groundbreaking research in human anatomy resulted in no publications — at least not in his lifetime. Not only did Leonardo fail to realize his potential as an engineer and a scientist, but he also spent his career hounded by creditors to whom he owed paintings and sculptures for which he had accepted payment but — for some reason — could not deliver, even when his deadline was extended by years. His surviving paintings amount to no more than 20, and five or six, including the “Mona Lisa,” were still in his possession when he died. Apparently, he was still tinkering with them.

Nowadays, Leonardo might have been hired by a top research university, but it seems likely that he would have been denied tenure. He had lots of notes but relatively little to put in his portfolio.

What makes the essay so interesting is the suggestion that Leonardo’s epic procrastination, far from being a character flaw or an impediment, was the very key to his creativity. So many of the things for which we celebrate Leonardo are the product of his procrastination, especially the notebooks which overflow with ideas and visions, daydreams about helicopters and double-hulled ships and so on. Leonardo’s notebooks are the primary reason we think of him as a genius, the archetypal polymath Renaissance man, rather than “just” a brilliant artist. And he was paid for none of that creative work. It is what he did when he ought to have been doing something else.

Would he have achieved more if his focus had been narrower and more rigorously professional? Perhaps he might have completed more statues and altarpieces. He might have made more money. His contemporaries, such as Michelangelo, would have had fewer grounds for mocking him as an impractical eccentric. But we might not remember him now any more than we normally recall the more punctual work of dozens of other Florentine artists of his generation.

I don’t want to get carried away. The lesson of Leonardo’s life is not to abandon yourself to procrastination. Procrastination has to be controlled. There is work to do, bills to pay. I get that.

At the same time, it is useful — for artists, especially — to think of procrastination not as a vice or a personal weakness, but as a signal, an alarm bell. It is the clearest possible indication that your current project is not inspiring to you. After all, you don’t put off something you enjoy doing. Your mind does not wander if it is engaged in something interesting.

The usual advice to procrastinators who yearn to be “cured” is to exert ever more discipline and hard work. Manage the problem. Put systems in place to help you complete a project that bores you to tears. Those are useful strategies, sometimes. Boring work simply has to get done, sometimes. But maybe, sometimes at least, we are looking in the wrong place. Maybe the problem is not the worker, but the work. Remember, it is the writer’s job never to be boring, and if a project is boring to the writer himself…

Every writer knows the self-lacerating guilt that accompanies unproductive days. Lately, I have been grinding away on a stalled, lifeless book. I have spent weeks on technical problems: trying to piece together the story or engineer characters to fill various plot functions. Or simply struggling to find new ideas worth writing about. It is an inefficient, unproductive, maddening part of the process. And of course I have bashed myself endlessly for procrastinating, for all the lost hours.

But maybe I ought to be asking not what’s wrong with me, but what’s wrong with this novel? Why doesn’t it inspire me? Or, more usefully, how can I turn it into the sort of novel that will inspire me? Every writer, every artist, of even moderate ambition wants to work with passion, on projects that fill him with a sense of mission. If the project before you does not do that, then change it till it does.

For a lot of writers, I admit, that is terrible advice. Certainly it contradicts the received wisdom. When wise old writers pontificate about How To Write, one chestnut they always toss off is “Don’t wait for inspiration.” And it is true that there are plenty of writers out there who work whether they are inspired or not. They churn out a book a year, steady, workmanlike, professional, unsurprising, consistent, well-crafted books. I admire them. I envy them, honestly. You should emulate them if you can.

But I don’t want to work that way and I don’t want to write books like that. I want every book to be the best fucking thing I’ve ever done. I want every book to be electric — a mission, not just a paycheck. I want to work at the absolute outer limit of my talent, always. That sounds naive and grandiose, I know, but there it is.

We writers always complain about modern readers. “They have lost their ability to focus deeply. The web has ruined them. They read like rabbits, skittish, hopping here and there. They don’t have the necessary attention span for novels. Novels are dying because of them.” We ought to remember that when we procrastinate, when we feel uninspired, our own mood — distracted, disengaged, dull, sniffing about for something interesting — is very much like the resting state of our audience. It is our job to make novels so intensely interesting that rabbity modern readers will feel they have to read them. They will close their laptops, turn off their ginormous high-def TVs, and pick up a book instead. The surest way to do that is to choose projects that are so intensely interesting to ourselves that we feel the same sort of compulsion to close our web browsers and get to work.

Procrastination is not always bad. It may be a signal. If you consistently feel you’d rather be doing something else, then your project is obviously lacking something. Don’t ignore that signal. Use it.

(Now go read that essay on Leonardo.)

Think Quantity

As I read about how creativity works, an idea keeps recurring:

Groundbreaking innovators generate and execute far more ideas. Research has shown that the single strongest correlation to innovative success — any category, anywhere, artists, scientists, entrepreneurs, policymakers, musicians — is the number of ideas they came up with and tried to make happen.… The reason why we see this relationship is because of a fundamental flaw in humans when it comes to creative and innovative ideas, which is: we are not particularly good at predicting what’s going to work or not work.

I stumbled across that quote in a talk by Frans Johansson (at around 5:45 of the video). It echoed a similar striking quote from Robert Sutton, which I mentioned a few weeks ago.

Renowned geniuses like Picasso, da Vinci, and physicist Richard Feynman didn’t succeed at a higher rate than their peers. They simply produced more, which meant that they had far more successes and failures than their unheralded colleagues. In every occupation … from composers, artists, and poets to inventors and scientists, the story is the same: Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced.

I was so struck by this idea, I decided to quickly check out the evidence.

  • Artworks Picasso produced in his lifetime: 20,542*
  • Inventions patented by Thomas Alva Edison: 1,093
  • Major works written by Charles Dickens: 50**
  • Compositions by J.S. Bach: over 1,000
  • Scientific papers published by Einstein: over 300***

Those are outlandish numbers, obviously, from a cherry-picked list of the famously prolific. What happens when we ignore the obvious, certified geniuses? What if we look at a few of the modern novelists I admire most? Well, they are all prolific, too.

  • Philip Roth: 27 novels, plus a half dozen other books of memoir and criticism
  • Updike: 21 novels, 18 short story collections, 12 collections of poetry, 4 children’s books, 12 collections of non-fiction, plus an ocean of criticism that has never been collected in book form
  • Bellow: 14 novels plus a half dozen or so short story collections and nonfiction
  • Ian McEwan: 11 novels, 11 screenplays, 3 short story collections
  • Graham Greene: 28 novels, 8 plays, 10 screenplays, 4 short story collections, plus memoirs, travel books, film criticism, etc.

No, it’s not the most scientific study. And there is some selection bias there: one of the reasons I admire these writers in the first place is that they have been so productive for so long. But it is hard to dispute Sutton’s conclusion: Creativity is a function of the quantity of work produced.

Lesson #1: Churn it out. Writers like Harper Lee — the one- or two-book writers who achieve great things — are a tiny minority. The surest way to create great work is to create a lot of work. Do not wait for the Big Idea; even if you had it, you would not recognize it. Execute a lot of ideas, even the imperfect ones. Trust that somewhere in that body of work will be the one or two transcendent achievements you are hoping for.

Lesson #2: Embrace failure. It is part of the creative process. You cannot succeed without failing — and failing a lot. No matter. As Beckett said, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

For a procrastinator and perfectionist like me, those are two vital points to remember.

* 20,542 is just the number of Picasso’s works that have been confirmed and cataloged thus far. Estimates of all work produced range as high as 50,000.

** Famously prolific, Dickens’ total output is hard to quantify. Some line-drawing is necessary. I’ve counted as “major works” the 20 novels, 4 short story collections, 17 Christmas numbers of the magazines Dickens edited and contributed to, and 9 collections of nonfiction, poetry, and plays. (The list I used is here.) It is a rough but conservative estimate since it omits the deluge of shorter pieces he wrote for periodicals, not to mention his myriad other activities.

*** Einstein also published about 150 non-scientific papers, mostly on humanitarian or political subjects.

Why do writers like working in coffee shops?

Writers love to work in coffee shops, and I am no exception. I can’t imagine how many gallons of coffee I have consumed over the years in order to pay the “rent” for a seat at Starbucks. And yes, for writing I prefer Starbucks, in all its antiseptic corporate blandness, to funkier indie coffee shops. Probably I prefer it because of its antiseptic corporate blandness. I feel less distracted, better able to blend in there. I do have a home office but I am not very productive there and I tend to avoid it. So I spend my days traipsing from coffee shops to libraries, usually the Boston Public Library in Copley Square or the Athenaeum on Beacon Hill. I am most productive in coffee shops, though, a fact I am vaguely embarrassed to admit.

But what is it, exactly, about a bustling cafe that is conducive to writing? Conor Friedersdorf rounds up a few theories. Here is my favorite, which Friedersdorf quotes from an academic paper:

…when we are alone in a public place, we have a fear of “having no purpose.” If we are in a public place and it looks like we have no business there, it may not seem socially appropriate. In coffee-shops it is okay to be there to drink coffee but loitering is definitely not allowed by coffee-shop owners, so coffee-shop patrons deploy different methods to look “busy.” Being disengaged is our big social fear, especially in public spaces, and people try to cover their “being there” with an acceptable visible activity.

That is, we writers are such hopeless procrastinators that we will only get down to work when our natural inability to focus is outweighed by something even more unpleasant: the fear of being exposed as a procrastinator, the potential embarrassment of looking like we “have no purpose” — the fear of being exposed as a fraud. We go to coffee shops to work in public because we want to feel those eyes watching us, shaming us into work. The advent of wi-fi at coffee shops largely short-circuits this strategy by allowing writers to look busy from a distance when in fact all we are doing is surfing the web. Still, it gives us a fighting chance in the war against our own worst instincts.

Quote of the Day

The chief beauty about time is that you cannot waste it in advance. The next year, the next day, the next hour are lying ready for you, as perfect, as unspoiled, as if you had never wasted or misapplied a single moment in all your life. You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.

Arnold Bennett (via)

The Cure for Procrastination

Before you sweat the logistics of focus: first, care. Care intensely.… Obsessing over the slipperiness of focus, bemoaning the volume of those devil “distractions,” and constantly reassessing which shiny new “system” might make your life suddenly seem more sensible — these are all terrifically useful warning flares that you may be suffering from a deeper, more fundamental problem…. Know in your heart that what you’re making or doing matters… First, care. Then, as you’ll happily and unavoidably discover, all that “focus” business has a peculiar way of taking care of itself.

Merlin Mann

James Surowiecki: Later

A theory of procrastination:

“… the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called ‘the divided self.’ Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control.… The idea of the divided self, though discomfiting to some, can be liberating in practical terms, because it encourages you to stop thinking about procrastination as something you can beat by just trying harder. Instead, we should rely on what Joseph Heath and Joel Anderson, in their essay in The Thief of Time, call ‘the extended will’ — external tools and techniques to help the parts of our selves that want to work. A classic illustration of the extended will at work is Ulysses’ decision to have his men bind him to the mast of his ship. Ulysses knows that when he hears the Sirens he will be too weak to resist steering the ship onto the rocks in pursuit of them, so he has his men bind him, thereby forcing him to adhere to his long-term aims.”

Anybody got a mast I can borrow for the next couple of weeks?

The Sawyer Effect

From Jonah Lehrer, an illustration of the power of intrinsic motivation — the desire to do a thing because you enjoy it, rather than for any extrinsic reward like a paycheck:

Scientists have recognized the importance of intrinsic motivation for decades. In the 1970s, Mark Lepper, David Greene and Richard Nisbett conducted a classic study on preschoolers who liked to draw. They divided the kids into three groups. The first group of kids was told that they’d get a reward — a nice blue ribbon with their name on it — if they continued to draw. The second group wasn’t told about the rewards but was given a blue ribbon after drawing. (This was the “unexpected reward” condition.) Finally, the third group was the “no award” condition. They weren’t even told about the blue ribbons.

After two weeks of reinforcement, the scientists observed the preschoolers during a typical period of free play. Here’s where the results get interesting: The kids in the “no award” and “unexpected award” conditions kept on drawing with the same enthusiasm as before. Their behavior was unchanged. In contrast, the preschoolers in the “award” group now showed much less interest in the activity. Instead of drawing, they played with blocks, or took a nap, or went outside. The reason was that their intrinsic motivation to draw had been contaminated by blue ribbons; the extrinsic reward had diminished the pleasure of playing with crayons and paper. (Daniel Pink, in his excellent book Drive, refers to this as the “Sawyer Effect.”)

Pink defines the Sawyer Effect as “practices that can either turn play into work or work into play,” after Tom Sawyer, who tricked his friends into painting a fence for him by convincing them it was fun.

This week I am faced with yet another rewrite of my book, to answer more concerns raised by my editors — an entirely extrinsic motivation, with all that connotes. I’d rather be playing with blocks or taking a nap.

The Price of Procrastination

“Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task.”

— William James

A cabin made of hours

“Like so many of the key skills of the writer’s life, the solution [to being distracted by the Internet] comes down to (groan) self-discipline. I came back resolved to break my habit of checking email and the Web (even to handle essential, chore-like tasks) whenever the urge strikes. I’ve converted to the ‘no email before noon’ productivity cult and save up any web-based activity for after I’ve done the day’s allotted reading and writing.…

“Now that I’m paying more attention to the insidious impulse to ‘take a little break,’ I see that it hits whenever I’m looking at a project that requires full and deep attention. I know that these projects are both more rewarding and more interesting that what people I barely know are posting on Twitter and Facebook, but trivia can be very seductive. Like potato chips, it’s hard to resist once you’ve allowed yourself ‘just a taste.’ You have to build yourself a cabin, not of logs but of hours, and not in the woods, but during some part of every day. And then you have to lock the door.”

Laura Miller, Salon critic who retreated to “the fabled cabin in the woods to think, read and even write a bit,” safe from the maddening presence of “the biggest distractor in my life — the Internet.”

Capote and Ellison: Blocked or just procrastinating?

“Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block — or were they just chronic procrastinators?” This interesting article from Slate, by Jessica Winter, considers whether there is a difference between writer’s block and procrastination to begin with.

Famously, both Capote and Ellison went silent after producing great books. Capote’s silence lasted nineteen years, from the publication of In Cold Blood in 1965 until his death in 1984. Ellison struggled for nearly forty years to produce a followup to his 1952 debut, Invisible Man. He never did.

Their struggles were not alike, though. Capote seems to have produced very little in all that time. Ellison, when he died in 1994, left behind thousands of pages. One was paralyzed, the other flailed. But both seem to have had the same inner problems: perfectionism, crippling anxiety about meeting heightened expectations after an early success, low self-esteem, excuse-making.

As a writer and lifelong procrastinator, the stories of Capote and Ellison scare the hell out of me. The lesson: the ultimate failure for a writer is not producing a bad book; it is producing no book at all.

(And yes, I realize I am procrastinating by writing this!)

chronic procrastinators?Did Truman Capote and Ralph Ellison have writer’s block—or were they just chronic procrastinators?