First posted April 2018
Many artists and writers identify procrastination as a problem. Some have schedules that make my eyes water. They get immersed in one thing from their gargantuan to-do lists then feel dreadful about putting off something else on the list. They work themselves to exhaustion, and then wonder what on earth is wrong with them that they find themselves resistant to starting work again immediately the next day. And, still they might complain that they haven’t got around to something really important.
There are other self-identified procrastinators who appear to be the opposite. The thing they’ve been meaning to do for years or even decades has not yet been started. Whatever else has been happening in their lives, it has not been what they chose or wanted. They argue with themselves instead until they’re exhausted, and then take time to ‘recover’ with some online shopping.
Is virtuous busyness a more acceptable method of procrastination than apparent laziness?
Whichever method of procrastinating we’re opting for, reflecting on what’s preventing us from doing what we say we want to do can begin to help us to find out if our obstacle is something practical, emotional, strategic, or mental.
We might consider, in the first place, whether we really want to do what we’re putting off. Whether we’re over-stretched or apathetic, it might be the things that don’t really matter to us that aren’t getting done. If those things matter to someone else, or to some sub-personality in ourselves, that can lead to mistaking a healthy and instinctive discarding of unnecessary pressures for procrastination.
However, sometimes it’s clear that we’ve been putting off doing something that does matter greatly to us, and the consequences of our procrastination could involve something serious like losing our homes, or losing our joy. Sometimes, it’s less dramatic - if consistently missing deadlines means that although the poetry gets written, the book never gets published; or the paintings get painted but never get shown. And it can take time to know how those consequences will affect the unfolding of our lives.
According to John Daido Loori, in The Zen of Creativity, Zen arts “don't exist for the sole purpose of creating a work of art, but they are rather a method for opening the creative process. They comprise means of training the mind and of living our lives.” He writes that when we meet barriers, “we have to be willing to turn towards the barrier and be intimate with it.” Meeting a barrier as if it’s an item on a to-do list isn’t the most helpful approach. Neither is analysing the barrier intellectually.
One thing that does help is to give time to quietening the mind. The Zen approach would be the sitting practice of zazen. For those of us who aren’t Zen practitioners, we can still make time and space to reflect, not just mentally, but with “whole body and mind seeing and perceiving.” This is initially easier to do with support than alone.
With a quiet mind, it becomes easier to get to know the part of us that is maintaining a barrier, and then we have a possibility of negotiating a peace treaty with it.
And I have noticed that when my mind begins to quieten down a little, my perspective changes. My to-do list no longer feels like an old style PE teacher yelling at me to try harder and run faster; instead there’s the possibility of the list feeling more like a sketchbook, or a writer’s notebook, full of potential. And then there’s a chance that I can vacuum without being told to by a nagging internal voice; or can fill in a long and complicated online form without a frantic impatience to move on to the next thing. And when I’m painting or writing, I might even be able to relax into the periods of uncertainty and incubation as well as the times of flow.
But, for now, that enormous pile of mail can wait... I think.