On Procrastination

On a morning colder than I was used to, I snapped awake in my dorm bed. It was 8:15 a.m. The first essay of my college career was due at 8:00 a.m. I pulled on some clothes, grabbed the manila folder that held the essay that I’d finished late last night and, my eyes still adjusting to daylight, ran downstairs and into the heart of campus. In my mind, in retrospect, I half-jogged through campus, arm extended with the folder in hand, shouting in my mind “wait!”

When I reached the classroom, it was locked and deserted.

Deadlines, like grades, KPIs, and industry standards, are structured such that you feel like a fool when you miss the mark. At least that’s what I felt, and what I still feel when I miss a mark. Apologies spill out of my mouth, I’m unable to look anyone in the eye, and on the inside I’m beating myself up for failure. I refer to the above anecdote now as a kind of original sin for the lateness that blots my work.

Like all those things, deadlines are also somewhat arbitrary. They’re lines in the sand that are drawn only to keep things moving forward. They’re there to create and prop up a structure for productivity, and in that way they’re useful for tracing the outlines of structures that govern our lives: a deadline roughly 2-3 weeks into my first semester of college writing was set so that my instructor could check in on my writing and understanding at an early enough point in the course to correct for tendencies in my writing and thinking that might impact the next assignment that built on the first, so that the next, larger stakes essay, which built on the ones that precede it, would be an improvement on and culmination of the collection of short papers I was starting to build.

Later, as an instructor, I understood this. I even understand it now, managing projects in my new career  – that deadlines are important, to keep moving.

My tendency to delay continued as I grew into adulthood. I developed a shamelessness about asking for extensions, and an expertise in citing why I needed them.

The finality of deadlines and grades instilled a fear in me, but the real fear is not of the markers themselves, but of what they portended.

To get started once and for all is to crystallize the thoughts that have much more freedom in my mind to run, turn sideways, upside-down, and run back again in on itself. To put these formless thoughts to words—static words on the page, no less—is to present something that can be judged. To write and put out in the world is therefore to open oneself to all kinds of risk: the risks of taking ownership of one’s own ideas and thus to be in a position to further shepherd or defend them; the risk of being wrong; the risk of the possibility of one’s own shortcomings; the risk of not being good enough.

So the task of meeting deadlines is just the first, outward manifestation of what I’m really afraid of when it comes to writing: the fear of judgement.

There is one thing that procrastination buys you, that I stand by and cherish – the purchase of time.

At some point in my education, when I was considering career options, I ruled out journalism in favor of teaching and research in higher education. It was a deliberate step away from knowledge production bound to time—the stringency of daily or weekly deadlines—and toward thinking slowly, as allowed and nurtured by the tasks of writing books and essays.

As a PhD student, I reveled in and was grateful for this slowness. Indeed, I had time to meditate on the idea of time – the sense that some scholars have that colonization is furthered by the rationalities and irrationalities of time.

There’s time for revolution. There’s Western time. There’s the time it takes for revolutionary ideas to catch on. There’s the time it takes for ideas to marinate, sink in – allowances for one to mull over and stretch boundaries that tend toward neatness. There’s the time given to just do the damn thing, and time later to revise.

This essay, my first, is late. I’m not going to apologize, because there’s no such thing as a #52essays emergency.

This year I’m taking on what I see as the crux of this challenge: the tension between what is certainly for me the tendency to procrastinate and the necessity of just getting the damn thing done.