Monday, May 11, 2009

Mastering the Art of Not Doing it Now

Approximately seven years ago, I picked up a copy of The Procrastinators Handbook, subtitled, Mastering the Art of Doing it Now, by Rita Emmett, at a yard sale. During those seven years, it has never moved off my night table, but neither has it been opened. I actually had forgotten about it until last October when a dear procrastinator friend stopped by for a brief overnight visit on her way to a conference at Princeton. After several hours of frenetic chatter, moving among topics like a pinball in Tommy's machine, we finally were ready to surrender to bed. She asked if I had a good book she could borrow1. So she followed me into my bedroom, and as I reached for a book in the middle of my nightstand stack, the Handbook revealed itself, stained with coffee and wine and covered in dust, sending us into fits of hysterical laughter. Cost of the Handbook at the yard sale: $1, shared fits of laughter over its understood futility: priceless.

So I just cracked it open. I don't want to bash the book; motivators mean no harm. Most of them claim to be recovered procrastinators; an obvious attempt at seducing you too into recovery. But they never really qualified as procrastinators in my book; if they did, they would know all these "techniques" they promote are useless. Take this tip for example, that Emmett claims will help you overcome "Hypocritical Procrastination": "Once you start to focus by setting a deadline for a task or making a commitment and writing a it on a to-do list, the other "important" things, which generate this type of procrastination, tend to fall away". Oh-ho-ho-no they won't. Those other "important" things need to move on up in importance in my book. After all, what qualifies itself to go on the list? I know about list-making; in an attempt to finish my dissertation, I went to years of therapy, a.k.a, "list-making 101". I learned how to prioritize, sub-prioritize, assign categories based on deadlines, create checklists, apply motivators, etc. I became a list master, but they never worked. The fatal flaw of this process is that it under- estimates the powers of procrastination; placement of an action on a list presents the procrastinator with the ultimate challenge, to not do them. Conversely, all the "unimportant" things you didn't put on the list, like watching your daughter break her hula-hoop record or watching your yard get covered in cherry blossoms, keep getting done. Maybe the art one needs to master, is not doing it. I do believe the first step, as Judith Warner's daughter's playmate's dream Dad recently suggested, is to adjust one's expectations.

1Note: Procrastinators are often afflicted with a related "disease"; ADD or more fondly, monkey brain. Whatever you want to call it, its hard to stop all the voices, so we usually need to read to get to sleep. But that is the subject of a future post.