In Praise of Procrastination

Last Updated on March 23, 2022

Green ball of yarn and knitting needles with outdoor view
Photo by Nick Casale on Unsplash

Like a lot of writers, my life is in exceptional order by the time I sit down to write. I've vacuumed. I've painted the rusty radiator and emailed a horticulturist in Canada about the colander he uses to seed his lettuce. (Those seeds cling to their chaff for dear life, making them notoriously difficult.) I've filled bird feeders and transferred myriad scribbled notes into alphabetized Word doc lists with category subheads. My car tires are buoyant with their new blasts of air. Deep dives into internet wormholes — the Mexican journey of the Monarch; the whereabouts of my Montessori-school boyfriend, last seen at age 4; video tutorials on the 2x2 tubular cast-on (a knitting thing) — are too many and twisted to calculate. If I'm on a roll, my pillowcases are ironed.

When I've finally exhausted my personal pantheon of diversions, and myself, it's a relief to sit down at the laptop. Anais Nin referred to the “venom of procrastination.” With all due respect, I view the non-writing preamble as a rich preparatory phase in the same way a yogi's asana practice is prelude to meditation; after wringing one's mortal coil this way then that and sending blood rushing in directions gravity generally scoffs at, mind and body welcome some quiet time. The serenity waves are free to do their thing. Procrastination, undertaken responsibly, is the writer's asana — a time to address potential distractions before putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.

The Wheels Keep Turning

The funny thing is, even during this busy (and productive!) avoidance stage, the writing process is often in motion, like an app working in the background of a smartphone. As I vacuum or transplant hellebores or wait to hear about colander specs from the Canadian seed guru, a part of my mind, sometimes conscious and sometimes not, is working out possibilities for the writing project dangling on the near horizon. Sentence fragments form, swirling slowly, coming into focus like the answers in a Magic 8 Ball.  A first sentence usually emerges, the hook I need to start clarifying what I want to say. I may notice something in the news or hear a random conversation that has an element relating to my project.

A few days ago in a Sanskrit class (my procrastination parameters are generous), I learned that the sound “kr” is the root of the verb “to do.” In “procrastinate,” the same phonetic root is preceded by “pro” (as in, Yes, all for it!).” My thoughts exactly: Procrastination is a cheerleader for doing, the handmaiden for creating.

Step Away From Your Screen

Even in the throes of writing, the time away from paper or computer allows the mind the freedom to play with ideas before confining them to sentences and paragraphs. How often have you had to get up from your desk and take a walk outside to work through a tangle of ideas? Or had an aha moment in the shower? It's the very act of distraction that gives the mind the latitude to find a solution, working at its own pace, away from your prying eyes.

Indulged in healthy moderation, procrastination's a subliminal brainstorming period. Within its creative shelter, possibilities and connections are freer to present themselves, like images appearing in a dream. When you finally get the signal to sit down and write, those thoughts have had time to coalesce and they're better poised to be expressed.

Don't Diss the Deadline

Too much of a good thing, of course, is no longer good. Deadlines are incentives, dates to bump up against, not ignore. Procrastination has to be built into a writing practice with awareness. The optimal length is personal, the result of an idiosyncratic algorithm that takes into account the size of a project, the immediacy of its deadline and the writer's writing rhythm and time requirements. I generally reach a point at which the anxiety of not having started exceeds the deliciousness of lapping up random information. (Opportunities to recite Patanjali's sutras are scarce, it turns out.) By that stage, my desk spotless and, with any luck, a seed-specific colander en route from the North, distractions lose their appeal, I'm ready to begin. The first sentence writes itself.

Margot Dougherty
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