I have often asked myself whether those days on which we are forced to be indolent are not just the ones we pass in profoundest activity? Whether all our doing, when it comes later, is not only the last reverberation of a great movement which takes place in us on those days of inaction …
-Rainer Maria Rilke
One of my favorite notions about procrastination is the idea of incubation — the belief that quietly putting off a task when you just don’t feel like doing it is just a way of ensuring that when you do get around to it, it turns out great. It’s a pleasant wives’ tale about inspiration and productivity that for the most part, I manage to dismiss in favor of lists, deadlines, and something like “sensible” time-management. But the tricky part about this construction of procrastination — and the reason I still cling to it — is that where creative tasks are concerned, I find it’s often true. There is such a thing as productive delay, and it lends itself to thoughtfulness. More often than not, setting aside an idea, a question, an argument, or theme for a while lets the mind do a bit of digestion and unconscious problem solving on its own — and results in better work.
The problem with this outlook is that as the stakes get higher, the impulse to allow for more and more “creative downtime” grows. It’s procrastination at it’s most thrilling, debauched and clinical. The Takeaway explored the topic morning in a segment on procrastination featuring Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White, co-editors of The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination. What intrigued me about the book is its apparent endorsement of the “great movement” philosophy of procrastination I hold dear. As the New Yorker review of the book puts it:
You may have thought, the last time you blew off work on a presentation to watch “How I Met Your Mother,” that you were just slacking. But from another angle you were actually engaging in a practice that illuminates the fluidity of human identity and the complicated relationship human beings have to time. Indeed, one essay, by the economist George Ainslie, a central figure in the study of procrastination, argues that dragging our heels is “as fundamental as the shape of time and could well be called the basic impulse.”
Basic impulse, indeed! Co-editor White takes a different view. He suggests that the key to understanding and controlling the desire to procrastinate is treating it like any other struggle of willpower: make rules, exercise some discipline, keep the larger objective in mind. Stay the course; resist the urge to reach for the short-term payoff. But where’s the magic in that? I’m inclined to keep looking to the literary giants, who have a great tradition of procrastination, for definitive instruction on how to postpone the task at hand. E. B. White couldn’t have gotten it wrong, could he?
Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer — he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. Delay is instinctive for him. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I have no warm-up exercises, other than to take an occasional drink.
image: Salvador Dali, The Persistence of Memory