If you haven’t visited Allie Brosh’s rather wonderful blog Hyperbole and a Half you should do so immediately. I am especially fond of this particular entry, which makes me laugh at myself when I feel like crying about my procrastination. That being said, of the many interesting and thought-provoking things I heard at ProcastinOx this summer I keep thinking about the serious costs of procrastination. Economic historians at the conference reminded us that procrastination isn’t just something middle-class people do, it is something many working class people do precisely because of the material conditions of their lives. They put off going to the doctor to get that lump checked out, or renewing their car insurance, or any many of other things that they should do for their own safety and wellbeing, because of how and when they work. What happens when you don’t have the time to do the things you ought to do to take care of your life?
All the things I haven’t done yet, or don’t do anymore, are all on my mind at once at any given moment. No one is more keenly aware than I am of all the things I don’t do, but what is harder to make sense of as I get older (and therefore have more responsibilities in a general sense) is which things are genuinely more important than others. Which things should I not even worry about doing? In a productivity-oriented society, you should, of course, prioritize the product-making activities (making, producing, reproducing). But of course, you also have to be a healthy and well-rounded worker to make good products, so is that part of your product-making activity, or separate from it? Does it include time to sleep, make your own food from scratch and exercise? Time to sing in a choir or practice dance? I genuinely couldn’t tell you anymore.
When I look back on my earlier self, I tend to think ‘I was so productive then, what happened to me?’, but actually those times in my life usually included activities that did not lead to products other people could count or use. In my final year of high school, for example, I spent 90 minutes every day practising piano. All through my years at university, I danced, belonged to art clubs and socialized regularly with friends. In those days, I even wrote fiction, in addition to writing essays for class and doing my readings. I never felt as though I was trying to get through a list of ‘all the things’, but I was regularly involved in a range of activities that had no real purpose except to be engaged in them. As I became more and more professional, I stopped doing more and more of those things. I was serious and committed to my academic work, I wanted to do it well and thoroughly and I thought the way to do that was to eliminate distractions.
That is emphatically not the way to be productive.
A friend of mine refers to these activities that many academics give up over the course of their studies as ‘things we lost in the fire’, an evocative and accurate metaphor for what happens when you let the discourse of productivity shape your view of yourself. Few joys compete, honestly, with creating the things that you want to create, the things that are going to help build the world you want to live in, but it takes some impressive clarity and determination to focus on what it is you set out to make. And it takes trust in yourself to know that your ability to make those things depends on making time to do other things that are not connected with your immediate productivity at all.
The only things that I still do, which are time-consuming but necessary for my well-being, are cooking food from scratch, walking, and sleeping a decent number of hours every night. The sacrifice of the other things hasn’t made me more productive, and it certainly hasn’t made me healthier. And yet I still find I put off taking up my non-professional pursuits. It will be time away from the time I should spend researching and writing and so I can’t justify it. It won’t lead anywhere. It won’t be of any use to anyone except me.
The distance from this frame of mind to burnout is very short, and sometimes, in a dark moment, I wish I would burn out, actually and properly, so that I could start over. Instead, I keep putting that off too.