Re-evaluating Procrastination | Pushing the Wave

Re-evaluating Procrastination

Writing, 3 December 2022
by L.A. Davenport
The Dictionary Definition of Procrastination
Procrastination, as defined in The Little Oxford Dictionary
We all know what it means to procrastinate, and we’ve all done it. Many times. Writers talk about it a lot, as they face the monumental horror of the blank page. I procrastinated over writing this, for several days. Everyone I have ever met has dithered over and delayed doing something they could have carried out straight away. Isn’t that what we mean when we talk about procrastination?

But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe we’re maligning something that is an essential part of creativity, or even of daily life.

Let’s start at the beginning.

What exactly is procrastinating? My copy of The Little Oxford Dictionary, which was published in its fourth edition in 1969 and whose ninth impression, printed in 1975, adorns my bookshelf, says in a punchy definition typical of that tiny tome that to procrastinate is to “defer action”, or “be dilatory” (“cause delay”, in their third definition of dilatory).

Even though the dictionary is trying to be as even-handed as possible, the implication is clear. Procrastination is something negative. It’s time-wasting, it is not doing. It’s the inverse of that classic motivational phrase: Why do something today when you can do it tomorrow?

Procrastination is considered a particular problem when it comes to work, whether professional or school, as it means that the completion of tasks and the delivery of projects is delayed by people not doing things when they were required or said they would. More than that, we can smell procrastination a mile off.

The classic, of course, is the schoolchild who says the dog ate their homework. (I never said that. I was too honest and always fessed up that I hadn’t done it. Maybe I didn’t have the nous to come up with something better.) In later life, the excuse often mutates into grandma or grandad died and I was too cut up to work / had to go to the funeral. And beware the sloppy liar who miscounts the number of grandparents they have already claimed against work delays.

We all know when we’re procrastinating, too. Doing the washing up, tidying our rooms, folding away our clothes, checking something we read in the paper, sending that quick text to someone about future plans, all of them take on a sudden impetus. They must be done now. Never mind that the deadline for whatever task it is looming like a portentous black cloud, it’s much more important that we do any number of minor and frankly deferrable jobs straight away.

The worst is when we say that we’re doing these things because otherwise we can’t get on with that increasingly urgent work or school task. I can’t work in this pig sty! And so we tell ourselves there is no way that we can think clearly and efficiently if everything around us is a mess. After all, a tidy desk is a tidy mind, isn’t it?

And yet, and yet.

Maybe procrastinating does have a function. It’s often said that idling, filling one’s mind with nothing, or simply being bored are essential for sparking creativity, as it gives the brain space to process, to cogitate and to ponder. Maybe it’s the same with deferring action, in the words of the dictionary.

Let me explain.

When I am at my busiest, I don’t have time to do anything but rush about from here to there, maximising my time and making sure everything is running as smoothly as possible. It’s boring, but it gets things done, and one would think that it wouldn’t make a difference to the quality of work that I produce, as long as I eat enough and get enough sleep at night.

But it does affect it.

It’s not because I am not having any rest, per se, as if I wasn’t filling my time with work, I would use any gaps to carry out little jobs around the house and do my admin. I never stop, really, or only very rarely, and I like charging about the place, being productive. The problem seems to some when I try to be productive at only one type of thing.

To give you an example; if I am about to write an article, I find my brain turning away from it like a repelled magnetic if I haven’t done something non-work related beforehand. I can’t jump from answering important emails straight into doing something as involved and energy intensive as writing. What I need to do is something menial, something practical, something distracting.

So I find myself suddenly desirous of hanging out the washing, preparing dinner, tidying up the flat, putting out the bins, rearranging my books or just gazing at my music collection. I don’t need to do any of those things ‘now’, in a literal sense, but I do in a psychological sense. I need to do them, as it creates space between one work task and another. My brain needs to switch off for a while and concentrate on something simple, before I swing it back into action for that major article that needs writing straightaway.

Having had very little time to procrastinate this week, I have found myself missing it, and now I think I understand why. It helps to oil the wheels, to allow the machine to spin down for a few minutes and let it recuperate before going back up the gears. So I’m not going to chide myself anymore if I find myself procrastinating. As long as I don’t do it for too long.
One thing I haven’t been procrastinating over is this site. It might be a small thing in the grand scheme of things, but I have redone the pages the two photo projects I have posted (so far), presenting them in an entirely different way. The projects are now, I think, shown in a much more accessible manner, and they frankly look better. Their pages also fit much more into the overall design of the site.

To give you a little background on the projects that are up there at the moment, the first is the result of an an idea I had been mulling over for a long time: to experiment with a well-known photographic technique.

Double exposure is when a piece of film is exposed to light not once but twice. While the risk is of overexposure and the loss of an photograph, when it works in can result in a really fascinating clashing of images. I think some of those in this project work particularly well.

The second set of photos came from a trip I took around Central Europe and the Balkans over 10 years ago now, with the aim not only to see those amazing regions but also to have some time away from the car crash that my life had become.

Amazingly, I lugged a Bronica GS-1 camera and lens kit around with me for four months. Not only did I not break it, which looking back seems like a minor miracle, but also I was able to take images that captured something of the incredible experiences I had along the way.
This week has been a sad one for the music world. It’s no exaggeration to say that I am a big fan of Fleetwood Mac, particularly the mid-70s period, and had always harboured a desire to see them play live.

In a band full of very talented musicians and songwriters, Christine McVie stood out for me. She created some very powerful songs, and was a wonderful singer. Only recently she gave a fascinating and funny interview to The Guardian. Little could I imagine that it would be among her last.

Such is the power of music and its ability to connect people, I feel I have lost someone from my life.
© L.A. Davenport 2017-2024.

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Re-evaluating Procrastination | Pushing the Wave