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Learning to Procrastinate

Posted on Sunday, February 28, 2016 at 4:02 PM

How setting aside an assignment and returning to it later can make writing better.

By Peter P. Jacobi

A recent Sunday Review section in The New York Times contained a fascinating essay written by Adam Grant, a professor of management and psychology at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. It was titled "Step 1: Procrastinate."

"Normally," the good professor wrote, "I would have finished this column weeks ago. But I kept putting it off because my New Year's resolution is to procrastinate more. I guess I owe you an explanation. Sooner or later.

"We think of procrastination as a curse," he continued. "Over 80 percent of college students are plagued by procrastination, requiring epic all-nighters to finish papers and prepare for tests. Roughly 20 percent of adults report being chronic procrastinators. We can only guess how much higher the estimate would be if more of them got around to filling out the survey."

Author Grant went on to explain that he has been quite the opposite, a "pre-crastinator," someone who always seeks to be the early bird. "I believed that anything worth doing was worth doing early." As an example, he pointed to his dissertation, which he had submitted two years in advance.

Now, Adam Grant pointed out, he was striving to change, for the sake of creativity. "Begrudgingly, I acknowledged that procrastination might help."

Hacking Away at Tight Deadlines

What Professor Grant tells us he's trying to do, I've done. I procrastinate. I usually put off the writing as long as I can and then, in recognition of the commonly believed sentiment that journalism is writing history in a hurry, I race through the writing process, endeavoring and almost always meeting the deadline.

In so doing, I find that I've removed all enjoyment from the process. I simply hack away at the task, fully aware that I have no other choice now but to get it done, and fast. How do I feel when finished? Relieved, sure, but also drained and almost unaware of what I've done. I do read the piece over for final corrections, of course, but that task, too, is hurried, impersonal, unsatisfying. And off I go to whatever task is next on my list.

I know in the practice of journalism, particularly newspaper and radio/TV journalism, that a rush very often is necessary: things happen, we report, we write, what we write is published or broadcast, and hurry goes with the task. Our training allows us to accomplish these tasks quickly; all goes with the job.

Savoring Longer Lead Times

But there are opportunities that come along, even when working for a do-it-quick daily production medium, to take on a now-and-then assignment for which we're given or have given ourselves more time. And certainly for a weekly newsletter or a magazine or a special publication of some sort, we get that chance to slow down.

I urge that you do so. It's good for your mental health. Work so that such slowdowns become part of the job and are built into the schedule. "Our first ideas," argues Adam Grant, "are usually our most conventional. Our minds need time to wander." Think wander time. Think think time. Think added information gathering time. Think imagination time. Think creation time. Think play time with ideas and words.

You'll find that wondrous things can and probably have been accomplished. The prose will have been strengthened. The content will have been deepened. The story will have been made more important, more significant, and the whole will have been made more readable.

Time to Procrastinate

And when all that is done, recognize that the project is not yet complete; there's more work to come. But put your masterwork away for a few days, to distance yourself from what you've so far put together. Go on to other need-to-be-done tasks. And then, those couple of days later, take out the manuscript and savor a careful run-through. You'll find fine points and larger issues and writing that require correction or reconsideration, even reconstruction.

Grant, seeking to procrastinate, put his manuscript away for three weeks. "When I came back to it," he said, "I had enough distance to wonder, 'What kind of idiot wrote this garbage?' and rewrote most of it." Often, however, you'll find yourself well pleased with what you did before, just because you availed yourself of a slowdown and engaged in some deep mental and emotional breathing.

Make the assignment a journey. Appreciate the doing and completing of it. You may even refresh yourself, rather than draining. Ponder and procrastinate. I encourage you: When it's possible, slow down what you're doing. Wander time can result in wonder time.

"This is how it works for me," writes Anne Lamott in her classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. "I sit down in the morning and reread the work I did the day before. And then I wool-gather, staring at the blank page or off into space. I imagine my characters, and let myself daydream about them. A movie begins to play in my head, with emotion pulsing underneath it, and I stare at it in a trancelike state, until words bounce around together and form a sentence."

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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