Click here for an explanation of the The Ways We Struggle guest post series.
Today I’m hosting Ellen Booraem, author of the MG fantasy novels The Unnameables and Small Persons with Wings, which made “best of 2011” lists in Publishers Weekly, Kirkus Reviews, and The Washington Post. She lives in Brooklin with her partner, painter Robert Shillady. And her struggle is one I think many of us can relate to: the problem of procrastination.
I’m not alone. The humorist Robert Benchley wrote about the syndrome in 1949: “Anyone can do any amount of work,” Benchley wrote, “provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.”
Benchley claimed that he would put the most pressing item at the bottom of his to-do list, knowing that he would end up doing it first because he systematically put off doing everything higher up.
This form of procrastination is more insidious than just putting off an unwelcome task because you’re lazy or fearful or out for a good time. I will put off ANY task—the nasty ones, sure, but I’ll even put off something I’ve been looking forward to doing. Ask me, some night when I’m noodling aimlessly around the internet at eleven, whether there’s a novel next to my bed that I’ve been waiting all day to read.
That answer would be “yes” and it’s a sickness.
This sickness permeates every part of my life. I pay bills with seconds to spare or, often, late. Paying bills is not fun, true, but it’s no more entertaining late than early. If I’m due somewhere, even or especially someplace nice, I hang aimlessly around the house until three minutes after the latest possible time to leave. I then violate the laws of Maine and the physical universe to get where I’m going on time.
In years past, my only hope was to have a day job with regular hours. Being due in the office at eight-thirty did not mean I would get there at that time, oh heavens no, but it did mean I’d get there by nine. I got my work done only because at day’s end I would procrastinate about putting my coat on and work until well past suppertime. Use your disabilities, that’s my motto.
When I quit my day job in 2003 to write a novel, my track record indicated that I’d sabotage myself and never, never, never, never write the friggin’ novel.
Fortunately, by then I had lived for a couple of decades with an artist who acts like he’s punching a time clock. In the studio at seven-thirty, leave for a half-hour at ten to get the mail, an hour at two for lunch and dog walk, upstairs at five to light the woodstove. Otherwise, nose to the grindstone.
That is what we call a procrastination over-ride—the only positive action you have to take is to apply your butt to the chair, and you take that action in a zombie state, only half awake. After that, it’s too much trouble to move and you might as well work.
I decided to try it. Eight years later, I am finishing my third novel. (Actually, I’m finishing my sixth, counting the ones I tossed in the wastebasket.) I apply butt to chair at eight-thirty(ish) every morning and I’m not allowed to eat lunch until I’ve written a thousand words. All but about three hundred of those words get written between eleven and noon, but I’m not complaining.
The only problem comes on a day like today, when something I couldn’t get out of prevents me from sitting down on schedule. This cancels the over-ride. Once I’m back at my desk, I’m in Benchley territory. For example, I am writing this guest post as a way to avoid doing what I told myself I was going to do today, which was to read my WIP aloud as a final edit. I love that read-through because it involves funny voices. And yet I am avoiding it.
Which is good. Because looky, looky, I got this guest post done!