A couple of years ago, my dad told me a story. I don’t remember what prompted the story, but it was about me getting into a gifted and talented program in elementary school. I didn’t know this at the time -- I was just glad to get into the program and be allowed to leave my boring fourth grade classroom and horrible teacher once a week to go to another school to write poetry and play with snakes -- but my parents didn’t want me to go. My dad said they thought I was already so high-strung about school and grades that doing something like a gifted and talented program would freak me out.
This story just confirms for me my sense that even at such a tender age I was a neurotic little weirdo, but it also puts in pretty high relief a defining characteristic of much of my attitude towards work: a fear of failure. I do love cool stuff like poetry and snakes; I did love learning and being smart even as a tiny kid. I remember being so delighted to learn the word “exasperated” from the Beverly Cleary books about Beezus and Ramona -- I was Beezus, of course, and “exasperated” was the perfect word, as far as I could tell, for pretty much everything about my life pre-high school. But I was also afraid of failure, which probably makes me more like a lot of people working in academia, not less. What would I be if I weren’t good at getting A’s, amirite?
Now I’m finishing up a book manuscript. I really wanted to write the book, and I was really happy to get the contract, and I’ve learned so much from doing the project. It’s the first time, however, in my life, even for such an inveterate procrastinator as myself, that I have seriously missed a deadline. Twice. By like a year.
For someone who has a history of procrastinating, I actually have a pretty good track record as a grown-up of getting things done when they’re supposed to be done. I remember staying up all night -- literally all night except for a half-hour nap on the couch -- in high school trying to finish a paper for my humor class: a 15-page magnum opus on the representation of New York City in Woody Allen’s movies. Not especially original, but it was at least twice as long as it needed to be, it was really pretty good (my teacher loved it), and I was damn proud of it. I didn’t procrastinate on it because I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t procrastinate on it because I was lazy. I found other things to do that I knew I wouldn’t fail at because I was afraid of failing at something deeply important to me as a person, a student, a thinker, a writer.
When I look back at all the times I’ve procrastinated, it’s never been about laziness. How could it be? While I was supposedly procrastinating, I was actually getting a huge amount done. While “procrastinating” on my math homework, I was running the school newspaper. Why did I procrastinate on my math homework? I was afraid of failing. While “procrastinating” on paying my bills in graduate school, I was grading papers for three sections of freshman comp and finishing up coursework for my PhD. Why did I procrastinate on paying my bills? I was afraid of having no money left for food.
As an older, more experienced person who has the benefit of productivity apps like Handle and Toggl, and who has a pretty obsessive and possibly unhealthy relationship with GCal, I procrastinate less and I get most things done when they’re supposed to be done. Every hour and every task is scheduled. Need me to write up a report? It goes on the GCal (coded blue for “Meetings and Colleagues”). Need me to review a manuscript? It goes on the GCal (coded green for “Other Writing Deadlines”). Do I need to finish up a long-term project in time to return interlibrary loan books? It goes on the GCal (coded orange for “Project Management”). Do I have a stack of papers to grade? It goes on the GCal (coded pink for “Students”). Do I have to write a blog post for the department website? GCal. Do you want me to do a search for some materials related to a faculty development opportunity? GCal. Oh, wait -- sometimes I do other stuff too. Phillies game? Dinner reservation? Theater tickets? All on the GCal (coded blue for “My So-Called Life.”).
So what happened with this book, this book that I really wanted to do? Did I miss two deadlines because I was procrastinating? The last few months have consisted of trying to write in between re-accreditation meetings and teaching and grading and being department chair. Finishing has meant not spending time with people I care about and with whom I like spending time. And it’s not like I haven’t been getting things done. First-year common experiences have been run. Assessment reports have been written. New book proposals and journal articles and reviews have been sent out. Blog posts have been posted. Was I just that afraid of failing?
The thing about procrastinating is, once you put something off long enough, your only choice is to get it done. The need to get it done supplants any fear you might have had. It’s like driving in a blizzard: being afraid is pointless because you really just need to get home and, hey, you’ve done it before and you didn’t die, so this time will probably be fine. Maybe that’s the value of procrastination: it replaces the fear with drive. You have to stop being afraid. You have no choice. You’ve given yourself no other option. And then you’re so glad it’s done -- and maybe even done well -- that you forget what you were afraid of in the first place.
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