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.


  1. I know...Is it an American thing? God forbid if your mind wanders away from the important task at hand of organizing your pocketbook to call a friend whose new number you just found stuck to a breath mint at the bottom of you bag. And REALLY what is more important than sitting in your back yard with a cup of coffee and watching the chickens scratch for worms.

    All the best days of your life tend to be the lazy ones--Right?--sitting in Central Park's sheep's meadow with your boyfriend and beer and looking at the beautiful city from afar. Wandering through the MET on a rainy day just to take a walk among all that beauty. Playing with your new baby in bed as you eat breakfast with you husband. Walking on the beach with your daughter picking up shells and finding Hermit crabs. Stopping at Oak Room with your sweetheart for a perfect martini and to breathe in the smell of old money.
    All the good stuff--never on a list.

  2. If it is an American thing, its for the wrong reasons. Judith Warner (okay so I have some kind of Judith Warner obsession but it is only because she gets around to blogging all MY ideas before I do) recently reported something like 50% of America's "Best and the Brightest" college grads these days go on to careers in finance, so they can buy McMansions with great rooms and florida rooms and hire people to take care of every aspect of their lives, because they are so busy with more "important" things.

    The best days are definitely the lazy ones - the ones you remember most - sounds like you've got quite a list of accomplishments!