A rough draft (response to Jonathan)

I know people say procrastination is perfectionism but I don’t know how in the world they came up with this idea. I know perfectionists and they don’t procrastinate, they’re just meticulous and over-critical, over-fussy.

I first “procrastinated” twice in graduate school, when I had paper ideas that were not actually viable. Studying on quarters there was no time to change, so I tried to force the papers to take their planned shape anyway. They were hard to write because they were not working, and I called the stalling and thrashing about, “procrastination”. I think it was something else. I wasn’t putting off work, I was avoiding the work that was actually needed, because if I did that work I would not finish by the deadline.

I was also accused of conspiring to procrastinate in graduate school, when I estimated twenty weeks as the time needed to research and write an article while also doing other things. The professor said that would be procrastination. I should not write a publishable article, just write some essay, in ten weeks. Again, I don’t think this was procrastination: I think it was good planning (ten weeks of reading and ten of writing was what I wanted). I made a deal with the professor to give me two quarters of B instead of one quarter of A. I wrote the article and it was published in a good place. People laughed at me as well when I said I could write a dissertation in a year at the rate of six pages a week (they wanted seven very rough pages a day, but I don’t make progress when I write that rough). They were floored when I actually did it (they had also yelled at me every day when they saw me not at the desk, because I was working a job, so they could not believe I was making progress).

My next big procrastination episode came with a book contract that asked for major revisions to the manuscript, requiring major research, that I wasn’t sure would lead in the direction either I or the press actually wanted, to be done in six months when I would also be teaching three courses new to me. I knew it was not realistic but signed on anyway, due to fear of being accused of conspiring to procrastinate (conspiring to be lazy, I suppose, which is a sin). I could not figure out a feasible project plan because there wasn’t one within those time constraints. I wanted to ask someone about it but did not dare due to fear of the pain of being accused of conspiring to procrastinate.

Instead, I just waited to not get tenure. Note what the actual procrastination was: I did not procrastinate on work, but on asking the question I needed to ask. I thought about this clearly at the time. I preferred to have something bad happen for a good reason, not finishing the book, over the possibility of abuse and a false accusation of conspiring to procrastinate. (I also wanted someone to volunteer the suggestion that I ask the needed question, and would fish for this, but was not clear enough about it because I was so fearful that I might instead get an accusation of conspiring to procrastinate.)

People did not understand why I was not devastated, but rather pleased, over the tenure decision. The decision came from a high administrative level, not from those who knew me. The paperwork said everything was excellent except for the non-finishing of this project, and that the university would reconsider if the project were finished within the year. I was pleased because everything was true: nothing false, no apparent bias, nothing trumped-up. The only thing that was wrong was something I knew was wrong and could agree to. This was immensely satisfying because what was wrong was a real thing, not something unjustified or worse, justified but invisible to me–and most importantly, not a character flaw, only a project not finished.

Note, then, where the procrastination is in all of this: it isn’t in not working, it’s in being afraid to ask questions. In the case of the two seminar papers I struggled with, what I really needed was to visit office hours and say I was struggling with the topic and the argument. I was afraid to do this because facing the actual problem could put me past deadline, and also, one was supposed to be willing not to be a perfectionist. I did not think the professors in question would have these reactions; I thought Zeus or Yahweh would. In the case of the book, I again procrastinated about asking the right question. I was afraid because once again, what I wanted to ask was heretical and I feared either immediate execution or torture of a type that would cause permanent disfigurement and disability. It was better to simply freeze.

Note what I have been afraid to ask: (a) can I let the research on the project take it where it will? (b) can I have a reasonable deadline, so that I can concentrate on the work itself? Note that the only constructive answers to these questions are a form of yes. But I not only expected negative answers, I also expected extreme violence and devastating abuse as a result of asking. Note also that when I was accused of conspiring to procrastinate, I went right ahead and did what I was planning, and got an article and a dissertation.

Procrastinating on work, having outright bad work habits, is only something I got into later. I could not understand it. That was when I came up with what you have in this post: it is a form of self-punishment and a separation from self. (One of the ways I have thought about it is as an overdeveloped superego, tied to an underdeveloped ego, that makes one want to retreat into id.)

For me, I still need to refine the theory, because if it is just this odd choice of askesis over the feeling of accomplishment, if that were a sufficient answer, I’d snap out of it. (Note that I procrastinate on many things, on everything that is a required activity, including also work on house and yard, and I only have healthy relationships to art work, political activism, and program design/institutional grant-making. *Because in these activities I do not feel there is some terrible super-ego watching me.*)

So in tentative conclusion: yes, procrastination is self-destructive yet feels good, or feels constructive in some way. But to understand why this is, one must refine the theory. Practical example: in my first academic job I would always stay up too late, because I hated the job and wanted to maximize the time in which I had gotten away from it for the day. Going to bed only brought the next day closer, when I would have to go to the torture chamber again. So once more, for me, procrastination is self-destructive but feels like self-protection, or like *the only way available to grab some space for the self to just be, as opposed to be subjugated to être-pour-les-autres*.

This, actually, could be an important insight. What if procrastination is pleasant because it is the en-soi? What if working should be the pour-soi, but is often the pour-les-autres? What if it is only easy to work if one can be sure it can be pour-soi?

Finally: I could also write about another form of procrastination in which I have engaged, about changing careers, but this post is already long. I would rather end with a newer insight, gained as I wrote this post: I have always procrastinated about speaking for myself, due to fear of extreme violence. The example that came to me while writing is from a conversation with a professor on my Ph.D. examination committee. The exam had been good and she had been surprised: “Don’t take this the wrong way, please, because I didn’t think you would fail, but I didn’t know you were this good. You are always so tentative, so careful, so unwilling to fully engage. What you have done here was brave and you should continue: you can have a brilliant career, I know this now.”

I have of course not had, because of Reeducation in all its aspects. But notice what the professor pointed out: I had always procrastinated about developing my ideas and asserting them. I did not explain to her that I had decided to do this for the examination because as I studied, I realized it would be the only way to pass: if I did not stand on my ideas, I would not be able to organize my thoughts, because there was too much information to retain and organize. So I came out with my ideas, did not procrastinate, because I thought that the best way to avoid failure or death. But in many other instances, I procrastinate because I wish to avoid death.


10 thoughts on “A rough draft (response to Jonathan)

  1. Here is another thing I notice about this: I will procrastinate on anything at all unless I think I don’t have time or must rush. If I say, you have 3 hours to work on this and get as much done as you can in that time (although no particular amount) I will start instantly and concentrate. That is for any project, of any kind, not just writing or other activities having to do with my job.

    Also, I will procrastinate if I don’t allow transition time. I don’t like to grade in the 15 minutes between classes, for instance, and don’t feel bad about “wasting” that time — but will become terribly destructive if *required* to “fill” it. No breaks during the day and I will either quit early or start late. Sorry, but I hate to rush and push in that way and will only do it if I want to — not on principle or because someone thinks I should.

  2. I am actually quite excited about some of the ideas and discoveries, or re-discoveries here!

    Also, once again, I procrastinate about anything I think I must not bring ego, but only superego to. And most anti-procrastination ideas are only ideas about getting more superego, and that is why I reject them.

    Finally, I do think it important to ask, what one is GETTING from procrastination, not what one is LOSING from it. One knows what one is losing, and it feels, as Jonathan’s post said, that what one is GETTING is actually something negative (self-torture), but I think one must consider what POSITIVE thing one is getting.

  3. Finally (and if I don’t quit the blog after this, it will be procrastination):

    I was always taught you did things for others, and you did it their way. You worked for others. You were in relationships because others wanted you there, and you were to please and serve them.

    Procrastination, for me, is rebellion against this. I did not want to get tenure, for example, via obedience, I wanted it to mean self-definition. If I could only self-define negatively, I preferred that over what I perceived as death by obedience. I don’t know that I was right, I tend to think I wasn’t, but I think my unconscious was at east onto something.

  4. OH, and here is a deep, psychoanalytic idea that I had.

    Going public with your ideas, and standing on them, was in my childhood the way to cause a very great family fight with extreme violence and possible annihilation.

    So, am willing to play with ideas, privately: have conversations, muse on blogs, write drafts, give conference papers, and so on. But an idea I go public with has to be something I do on behalf of others. I can be *very* valiant fighting for others or for the collective, but standing up before more serious authority for my own ideas is not something I consider worthwhile, since it means death.

  5. So: in Jonathan’s terms, it’s because one doesn’t think one deserves the satisfaction of finishing.

    There’s that, but also: one doesn’t want to condemn oneself to the ever narrower path finishing implies.

    And on the other hand: the cost of finishing is that those whose love sustains you will stop loving you. That is a higher cost than the cost of not finishing.

    And in my case: if I concentrate in the way I need to, I will get a really devastating interruption — my mother will self-harm for instance. So getting into the *process* has an immediate and very high cost.

  6. I put a lot of other interesting comments on Jonathan’s blog.

    But here is one more thing, about acquiescing to rejection before the fact: I am very marked by being told things were not for me, no you are too small to do this, no you will not be able to do that, ha! ha! you think you can do this, that is so hilarious! you think you are so smart, ha! ha! I shrink from protagonism, or full adulthood, or from standing in my authority, because of this.

    So it REALLY can all be boiled down to needing to put more ego into it all, to authorizing oneself (literally), and getting rid of the ideas that THIS IS NOT YOURS (you should be doing something else) and THIS IS NOT FOR YOU.
    I am doing this because it is me. I am worthy. (These sorts of sentences are really key and really simple; I am very happy to have found them because they are the magic bullet, the real mantra.)

    (Also, note: to work, the work has to be yours and be a safe space for you, a calm space, wherein you can expand. I was like this once. Then it became something that was not mine/for me, something I was doing to perform, to prove worthiness. And at some point I was tired of proving worthiness and went on strike. “I refuse to do this for THAT reason, I want to be worthy already, I think I am worthy already and do not need this to prove it, if THAT is the point of doing this.” Confused ideas like these.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s