Was it really procrastination?

It all began with the holiday weekend. Or so I thought. Just long enough to unplug, but not long enough to recharge (wait, that sounds backwards – but you know what I mean).  Between my vacation hangover and the ongoing very lovely weather, I had a difficult time focusing on priorities last week. I just wanted to play play play.

Those priorities are kinda big hairy dealios right now. A bit intimidating. A bit overwhelming in scope. So I also knew in my heart of hearts, that play play play was also about avoidance. I called it balance. I called it pacing myself. But that was not entirely truthful.

Anna Deavere Smith defines procrastination as active avoidance: “We think of the procrastinator as lazy and inactive, but procrastination is active.”

So then I actively avoided those priorities by cleaning the house.

One way you can tell how often you need to do something is to not do it and wait to see how long it takes for problems to show up. Not a big crisis, just problems. And you know your house is way too dirty if you are so distracted by the filth that you choose vacuuming over a looming project deadline.

And you know what? It helped. I’m always surprised how much recreating a sense of order in my environment helps me to feel more ordered in my mind.

I spent much of the last several days cleaning, clearing, ordering and organizing – taking care of neglected to-do’s that taunted me every time I looked at them, the tasks that kept nagging at me.  I’m not talking about spring cleaning the nooks and crannies here. Just the big stuff that felt in the way.  Dirty carpets, grosser toilet, piles of laundry, bookkeeping, yard work, overfull in-box, paper piles and filing, grocery shopping (yes, there was food disarray, too). It was a like a four-day Bite the Candy session.

And I guess that stuff was in the way. Because I feel much more clear-headed now. I can focus without all that distraction of … what? piles, dirt, disorder… guilt? an overwhelming sense of being behind on everything?

Basically, I did a lot of maintenance. Not glamorous stuff. It never seems high priority. But what happens when it’s neglected, it’s impact on what is most important (those big hairy dealios) points to just how crucial it is.

So was heeding my impulse to play, to take care of maintenance (which I suppose play could be considered a form of) a foolish choice of active avoidance given my deadlines and commitments? or a smart move?

Because the “high priority” work was not getting done. Maybe I was feeling too much anxiety about it. Whatever the reason, sometimes you just can’t force it. And while focusing on a task to the exclusion of all else can sometimes be very effective, there’s nothing worse than having a task hold everything else up because your stuck on that one thing.

Flow begets flow. Motion, any motion, creates momentum.

I still don’t feel completely “caught up” – that I’m in sync with my schedule – but I’m moving again without having to overcome all the resistance I was feeling last week. This week things feel doable. In that light, I have to conclude: smart move.

Sometimes you have to come at your work sideways instead of head on.

6 Responses to “Was it really procrastination?”

  1. 1 Liz June 1, 2009 at 9:51 am

    I learned something about myself when I was in grad school and the end of the semester would come around. I’d have 3-6 papers, anywhere from 30-50 pages worth and research to do besides… what’s the first thing I’d do? Clean my apartment. Kitchen, bathroom, fold laundry, and most importantly, clear off my desk. I used to beat myself up, thinking I was procrastinating- but then came to realize it was all PART of the PROCESS! Doing these things cleared a certain kind of space in my brain to function in an intense way over a period of a week or so. Now I tell my clients to notice what their procrastination habits are- and to befriend them. If nothing else, sometimes we get a heck of a lot done when we’re procrastinating!

    • 2 Cairene June 1, 2009 at 11:44 am

      I love your reminder that this is part of the process! So true.
      I should have added somewhere in there, that this is a long-standing pattern for me as well. Clearing space has pretty much always been a preparatory step for me too. I think this time around what was emphasized for me was the consequences of not allowing myself enough time for that part of the process, because apparently I’m not very good at skipping it.

  2. 3 Christine Martell June 1, 2009 at 10:24 am

    I’ve been thinking a lot about productive procrastination. So instead of just avoiding the big project that is scaring or overwhelming me by suddenly needing to know when the next new Wii game is coming out, I allow myself to shift to sorting or organizing or some other thing I have been using work to avoid. It becomes a kind of rotational avoidance— but I get a lot more done on all of it.

    • 4 Cairene June 1, 2009 at 11:45 am

      “Rotational avoidance.” Fantastic. If everything gets a turn, then it’s not really procrastination is it? ;-)

  3. 5 Barbara Martin (@Reptitude) June 1, 2009 at 10:05 pm

    It’s kind of an interesting beneficial pattern when the procrastinating is actually action, and the action is physical and somewhat repetitive, maybe even meditative. And from it we get a definite tangible result that we can see and feel and experience as a finished product: clean floor, folded laundry, weeded flowerbed. This kind of momentum then helps us switch gears over to the mental processes of creating something new … I think the physical activity just plain helps us move out of our heads — greases the skids to get us beyond whatever has been our sticking point.

    • 6 Cairene June 2, 2009 at 7:11 am

      @Barbara –
      Good point about the physical activity. Literally moving is something of a magic pill that’s so easy to forget to take. We really do need to get out of our heads to get back into our heads. :)

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Third Hand Works

from overwhelmed to ready for anything | organization and time management for people in their "right" minds | administrative guidance for independent creative professionals [more info]



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