Many years after college, Ilyse is back in school studying oncology massage therapy. She recently confessed that she has been a procrastinator since first grade. She spent her entire academic career plagued by anxiety, even paralysis, as tests or project deadlines approached. Now her Procrastination Demon is back. This time, though, like Max taming the Wild Things, Ilyse is In charge.
What’s her secret? A friend of hers, after listening to Ilyse’s descriptions of post-midnight, 11th-hour writing spurts, asked her, “Do you like working like that?” Ilyse paused and said yes, that in fact she’s most creative and productive late at night when on a deadline crunch. “Well,” replied her friend, “it looks to me like you’re not a procrastinator. You’re a burster-outer, or a burster-forther!”
Maybe I’m rationalizing an unhealthy pattern. . But what resonates with me in a healthy sense is that Ilyse accepted and exploited her biorhythm and the source of her creativity. The anticipatory anxiety I feel when a deadline looms can morph into hyper-focus and even creativity. Procrastination is not one personality. It has “many faces,” and those different faces require different “procrastination-slaying” techniques, as SciLancer Anne Sasso (bio) describes with insight and humor in her chapter called “Just Write the Friggin’ Thing Already!” in The Science Writers’ Handbook.
Sprinting versus Jogging
I’m a sprinter by training. Early in my career I spent nearly a decade working in daily news for a wire service.. Deadlines were always hovering, like Predator drones, several times a day on some days. Tending to my night-owl biorhythm wasn’t an option. Later, when I worked as a contributing editor for a weekly magazine, I started writing more at night. It afforded me creative distractions during the day, like cycling in the Marin Headlands north of San Francisco. My deadlines were 7:00 a.m. (10:00 a.m. eastern time; the magazine was based in New York) In an ideal world, I’d be more like SciLancer Doug Fox (bio), who describes in Sasso’s chapter how he finishes a first draft way ahead of a deadline; he lets the draft “rest” for a week or two before he returns to it and revises it with fresh eyes.
But that stint at the weekly, here’s what my weekly-deadline writing schedule looked like: At about 11:00 p.m. I’d head outside to my favorite neighborhood café, order a latte, return home with it, and start the writing sprint. It was peaceful – hardly any car traffic, no roommates scurrying around inside. I would hit “send” sometime between 4:00 and 7:00 a.m.
I’m older now. My creative and physical energy wanes earlier. I can’t bounce back from a near-all-nighter like I used to. And, needless to say, an 11th-hour spurt doesn’t leave time for much reflecting and rewriting. It doesn’t work for me with many articles much longer than 2,000 words, especially data-heavy ones. When it does work, it’s only because all the researching, reporting and story-mapping is already behind me.
Procrastination-slaying or befriending?
Of course, these 11th-hour writing sprints are not always focused and suffused with inspiration and creativity. Whether I’m writing a draft in one day or night, or spreading it into chunks over several days, I wrestle with resistance, doubt, distractions and other unsolicited guests that are not the muse type. SciLancer Alison Fromme (bio) offers these useful pointers for getting back on track.
“I’ve come to realize that my work flow is not linear — and that’s okay! If I am in a time crunch and I find myself wandering mentally, I try to 1) identify that I’m distracted, and 2) switch things up and commit to really focusing after that switch. That might mean print out my work instead of staring at the screen (see Monya Baker’s post “When to Press Print”), or getting up from my desk and doing a few quick stretches, getting a cup of tea, walking out in the garden for a minute, or whatever. Then I can come back to my work with renewed focus.”
“I like the “burster-outer” and “burster-forther” perspective, but it just seems re-framing that is a justification for continuing to procrastinate as if it were somehow an unavoidable part of one’s nature… If I find I’m procrastinating then I sit and think about just exactly what it is about the project that I don’t want to do, and just exactly what it is about the project that I do want to do. Then, I work on the parts I do want to do, and sooner or later it’s just so close to being done (and the deadline is approaching) that I finish off the parts that I don’t want to do.”
In fact, I’ve been practicing Rob’s style on this blog post, saving the least desirable part — the technical side of posting to WordPress — until the end. Which reminds me, it’s about time to hit “send.”
Image credit: www.judolphins.com