Well, I’ve done it again! Failed to finish an “assignment” with any real breathing room between myself and the due date. This doesn’t mean that I won’t get it finished in time – quite the contrary (assuming I didn’t just jinx myself that is). My submission for this year’s U.F.O. anthology, otherwise known as Unidentified Funny Objects, is due no later than Monday. This means I have to finish it tonight, edit it tomorrow, and e-mail it out on Monday. Fingers crossed!
Oddly enough, I’ve always done my best work under pressure. Through high school and college I almost always wrote my essays and papers the night or weekend before they were due. This went the same for studying for exams. I was the girl at Tulane who stayed up all night before the Symbolic Logic final reading what I considered the important sections of the textbook since I hadn’t been very responsible about attending the lectures. I suppose I’ve always been super lucky that I absorb information from books exceedingly well; I wouldn’t have survived school without that gift as my attendance record was (unfortunately) far from spotless. Where papers were concerned, I’d spend the evening before it was due sitting on the floor, laptop in my lap, surrounded by twenty or so books on my chosen topic spread out around me like some kind of special nerd moat. Then I’d wade through those books, carefully choosing information to support my thesis and quoting writers and study results that I found particularly memorable or stunning. I wrote extremely slowly and carefully, which is why I rarely needed more than one draft. Instead, I corrected as I went. It was time-consuming the front end, but definitely saved a hell of a lot of time on the back end. In fiction, I’ve found I still write that way to a large extent; I suppose old habits are hard to break. In any case, I nearly always got an A on my essays, so my methods must have worked for me personally. But I’m not the only one!
For all you fellow procrastinators out there, some recent studies have shown what we’ve always known: waiting until the last minute to get something done isn’t always a bad thing! Not only can it give us an adrenaline boost, but it also improves our focus and speed where that task is concerned. If something isn’t expected for a week, it’s easier to let our minds wander. One minute, we’re staring at our computer screen, trying to decide what our protagonist should say next. The next minute, we’re wondering what movies are coming to our local theater this weekend or mentally inventorying our snack drawer and coming up with excuses to gorge ourselves on leftover Easter candy. Also, on a personal note, I find that once the deadline for a creative project approaches, I have an easier time making decisions. In music, that may mean I decide in ten minutes instead of two hours whether or not I want a cello running through the chorus of a particular song; In writing, it means that I’m not going to spend an hour second-guessing myself about the wording of a single sentence (yes, I have done that before). Instead, I find it much easier to move my story (or song, project, etc.) along, because what choice do I have?
I’m not saying that I don’t wish that I could change sometimes. Procrastination can be DEVASTATING to one’s career (and any other facet of life) if it means that important work and projects aren’t turned in to a superior on time or, if it’s a personal enterprise, put off indefinitely. Like most people, I have at one time or another been guilty of this type of procrastination as well, and I’m not proud of it. When you have a dream but never begin the work required to see it through to fruition, or give up halfway through, that dream tends to either wither and die, or stick around, incomplete, in the back of your head to cause bitterness and heartache. Something that’s actually really helped me get MUCH better about finishing the projects I start instead of getting so easily distracted by the next “great idea” that I move on and leave the original undertaking altogether unfinished is, you guessed it, a book! It’s called The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. and is based on an exceedingly popular class that she teaches each year as part of Stanford’s Continuing Studies program.
If you’ve ever wandered how to improve your willpower so that you could eat more healthily, control your temper, or, like me, stop abandoning tasks halfway through when the excitement starts to wear off, give it a quick read through. I liked how, in each chapter, she explained the latest scientific research related to willpower. Then, she’d ask the reader to look at how this idea was already operating in their lives, explained why we so often FAIL to accomplish the goal we set before us/do the thing we know we should be doing, and finally, gave the reader exercises designed to help them apply the scientific knowledge gained from the aforementioned study to their own lives in a positive way. It was pretty cool.
But look! I’m procrastinating right now! While I sit here and write about putting things off (and learning to be better about it), I’m putting off the sci-fi story I SHOULD be working on for the U.F.O. collection. So, are you a procrastinator? Have you found ways to get better over the years? If so, what methods have you used? Whether you feel you’ve left your procrastinating ways behind you or not, consider checking out The Willpower Instinct or some other well-researched book on the topic. Most of us probably have at least one area of our lives we’d really love to improve!